The Palestine solidarity encampments were sparked off in the United States. But by now, the movement down south has mostly died out. Here, we republish a report on the lessons of the movement by our sister party the Revolutionary Communists of America. RCA comrades took an active part in the movement from the beginning. Their experience provides indispensable insight for everyone fighting for a free Palestine here at home. 

In Canada, the encampment movement has not seen nearly as big of a decline. However, momentum is beginning to slow down. The biggest encampments are decreasing in size, and the violent state repression at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary is a grim warning for other campuses. If the encampments are to succeed, they must work to spread the movement to the rest of the working class. Only in that way can we launch the Canadian revolution. 

Graduate student Elea Sun was part of the activist group that set up the initial encampment at Columbia University. Little did she realize it would spark a global response. “There’s been a lot of work, a lot of meetings that went into it, and when we finally pulled it off, we had no idea how it would go,” Sun told the Associated Press, “I don’t think anyone imagined it would take off like it did.”

Their courageous initiative came just as the movement faced a burning question: how do we take the protests to the next level?  In this context, campus occupations in solidarity with Gaza spread rapidly around the world.

Source: عباد ديرانية, Wikimedia Commons

The spark that lit a fire

In the streets, protesters were increasingly dissatisfied with the tactical dead end of endless marches and rallies. For over six months, activist groups had issued calls to “shut it down” for Gaza—yet the flow of US weapons and funds for Israel’s genocidal slaughter continued without disruption. But what exactly was being “shut down”?

Then came the images of tents lining Columbia University’s South Field, a call to action to the entire movement. The coast-to-coast spread of encampments that followed was a measure of how willing and ready thousands were to spring into action once a way forward was pointed out.

The April 17 encampment—timed to coincide with Columbia President Minouche Shafik’s slanderous testimony on “antisemitism” before Congress—was preceded by months of preparation. However, the spontaneous efforts on other campuses were almost completely improvised in the space of hours and days.

The Columbia activists had spent long hours in meticulous planning sessions to work out the logistics, weigh the risk of arrest, and discuss details like bathroom access and trash removal. By contrast, most of the subsequent encampments were established through a chaotic scramble with little time for coordinating the basic functions of an operational tent city, let alone the broad solidarity efforts required to ensure a minimum of defense against repression.

By the end of April, a national wave of police raids had cracked down with rubber bullets, tear gas, and handcuffs. On May 4, the Columbia protesters, by then barricaded in Hind’s Hall—as the occupied Hamilton Hall was renamed—were swarmed by riot police in tactical gear. Hundreds were arrested, the barricades destroyed, and the encampment was shut down.

Similar scenes played out across the country. Mass arrests rounded up at least 3,000 protesters on 61 campuses, and as of the writing of this article, few of the 140 campus encampments that once dotted the map remain. What began as an inspiring escalation—long awaited and enthusiastically taken up by thousands of determined students, workers, and youth—has been routed by the brutal force of police batons and Zionist thugs.

Nonetheless, this phase of the movement, however short-lived, offers some of the most fruitful lessons for a generation of fighters searching for a way to make the intifada more than a slogan for street chants. Revolutionaries have a duty to draw a balance sheet that brings to the fore all the conclusions flowing from those intense weeks of struggle.

Source: Revolutionary Communists of America

Planning versus spontaneity

The encampments revealed an extraordinary amount of energy and audacity on the part of the students and other participants. In the face of the atrocities suffered by the Palestinians, thousands of people in the US and around the world have developed a hardened will to resist.

Not a single camp could have been established without a reserve of moral courage in the face of numerous threats. The students braved arrest, criminal charges, police repression, and violent attacks by Zionist zealots acting with impunity and implicit police protection, not to mention the threat of academic sanctions, suspensions, and, in the case of faculty, the risk of losing their livelihoods. The vicious reaction of the state exposed the hypocrisy of the US ruling class, which claims to lead a free and democratic country.

A sense of determination and a will to act are prerequisites for any movement’s capacity for resistance. But this is only a premise for the struggle. Along with a moral backbone, such struggles require a well-planned strategy and coordination if we are to transform escalation into victory.

The contrast between the detailed preparations that went into the Columbia encampment and the relatively haphazard process of setting up those that followed in its wake shows that the logistics of running a round-the-clock occupation must be tackled systematically.

This was starkly illustrated by the experience at Arizona State University, where organizers decided to launch the encampment in a conspiratorial way, hoping that the element of secrecy and surprise would give them an advantage against law enforcement’s inevitable efforts to clear the camp. Their plan was to set up a “decoy” rally in a different location to distract the authorities, while a limited circle of personal contacts would quickly set up the tents.

RCA comrades, who participated in these early discussions, advised against this tactic, arguing that a widespread mobilization campaign was the only way to maximize the numbers needed for reinforcement and defense. Unfortunately, the comrades were outvoted, and the organizers proceeded with their covert operation.

At 8am on April 26, some 40 pre-designated protesters began setting up tents, while pre-prepared social media posts announced the newly created “liberated zone.” Most of the activists involved knew about the action by the day before, but nothing had been publicly announced, and no effort had been made to connect with the University of Arizona, where plans for another encampment were also underway.

By 9am, campus security was joined by the local police and county sheriff’s departments, who began knocking over tents, making arrests, and dragging away the first wave of protesters. Though the crowd peaked at around 200, including a contingent of Revolutionary Communists, the belated efforts to mobilize support for a surprise action proved insufficient.

Despite the protesters’ valiant efforts to maintain and defend the encampment, it was violently snuffed out by the end of the day, with around 70 arrests. Members of faculty and campus staff who had gathered nearby individually expressed their sympathy for the students, but no organized effort had been made to appeal to them to come out in force.

These ad-hoc methods were seen on many other campuses, with similar results.

Source: Ramona Eid, X (formerly Twitter)

Unaccountable leadership and missed opportunities

To the extent that the encampments adopted any formal structures—and many did not have time to even pose the question—these were most frequently declared “autonomous” bodies or “liberated zones.” To our knowledge, none of them took the step of electing a leadership through a democratic vote.

In practice, this means that decisions were taken by self-appointed leaders, or by whichever activist group had initiated the call for the encampment. As is always the case in formally “leaderless” scenarios, those taking decisions, responding to law enforcement, or negotiating with the administration are, therefore, not responsible or held to account when their guidance leads to defeat.

In most cases, this defeat meant utter unpreparedness in the face of eventual police raids. In the case of at least six encampments, protest leaders voluntarily took down the camps after receiving toothless “promises” from university administrators:

  • Northwestern University promised “additional transparency.”
  • Brown’s board will “hold a vote” on a divestment proposal in the fall.
  • Rutgers said it would “review protester demands.”
  • University of Minnesota protesters will get to “address the school’s board.”
  • Johns Hopkins promised students a “timely review” of their calls for divestment.
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee pledged to join calls for a cease-fire; denounce Israel’s destruction of Gaza schools and universities; and meet with protest leaders over their concerns about university investments.

If there was one notable instance of an encampment temporarily assuming the form of an open “council” of workers and students, it was the Town Hall assembly at City University of New York (CUNY) initiated on April 29 by around 60 rank-and-file members of unionized faculty organized in the Professional Staff Congress. By setting up a formal place for faculty and students to make proposals, debate the way forward, and make decisions on the spot, the workers filled a desperate need.

With microphones available to students and faculty alike and a chairperson to facilitate, the assembly made it possible to at least discuss ways to escalate and defend the encampment, namely by demanding that the leadership of the 30,000-strong union back the protest—something the leadership subsequently declined to do.

This platform provided the opportunity for Revolutionary Communists in the movement, including a CUNY student and a CUNY graduate, to address the assembly and put forward concrete proposals for the encampment, including designating a group of representatives to contact the broader labor movement and appeal for solidarity and support.

Unfortunately, the chair of the meeting ruled these proposals “out of order” on the technical grounds that it was “beyond the jurisdiction” of the assembly to make any decisions on behalf of the “autonomous” encampment—as the meeting had been initiated by supportive union members but not by the encampment itself. In this way, this concrete, actionable proposal was dismissed, and the opportunity for the encampment to link up more tangibly with the labor movement was lost.

The workers ultimately decided to initiate a sick-out on May Day and succeeded in getting 250 professors to pledge their support for the action. The PSC leadership condemned the strike as illegal under New York’s (anti-strike) Taylor Law. The day after the assembly, the NYPD arrested 300 students at campuses across the city, and the CUNY encampment was crushed.

There were other limited instances of labor solidarity, such as a statement of support for the students from the University of Texas at Austin faculty, who were outraged after Governor Greg Abbot ordered the indiscriminate brutalization of the students, branding them “antisemites” who “belong in jail.” Faculty organized in the Texas State Employees Union responded by refusing to work and demonstrating in favor of the students.

Likewise, UAW Local 4811 representing 48,000 employees at the University of California is currently holding a strike authorization vote in response to the UCLA administration’s complicity in the violent attack by Zionists armed with metal rods and fireworks on April 30. Meanwhile, on May 8, faculty at the New School in New York City launched an encampment of their own—the first of its kind—after occupying the main lobby of the campus and setting up signs with slogans like “faculty against genocide.”

These inspiring, if relatively limited, instances of labor solidarity provide a glimpse of the potential that could have been tapped, if the encampments had been able to carry out a coordinated campaign to appeal for maximum labor solidarity—their only serious line of defense.

Source: Revolutionary Communists of America

How could the encampments have been defended?

The advantage of foresight and careful planning ahead of the encampments was, therefore, not only a logistical question; it was an urgent matter of tactical survival. Even in those encampments that successfully mobilized hundreds of students and held down occupations for weeks instead of hours, the question of defense loomed large from the start. This was a critical point of vulnerability, in which the absence of a leadership with a class-struggle perspective was starkly revealed.

It’s worth visualizing how the scenario could have played out differently if an organized force had been present to provide a lead. In addition to working out the basic logistical operations—food, water, tents, waste disposal, bathrooms, medical provisions, collection of supplies—a well-planned occupation would have required a representative body for round-the-clock political deliberation, taking decisions on the spot, and arranging for their immediate implementation. Instead, many encampments resembled loose gatherings with little direction or organization. Without clear instructions or an urgent battle plan, students ended up spontaneously spreading out on the lawn doing homework, chatting, making art, or designing protest signs.

In other words, in the absence of a conscious leadership with a strategic perspective of spreading the struggle beyond this or that campus, the reserve of human energy assembled on those lawns could not be harnessed toward the urgent tasks that were required.

The key to winning these struggles comes down to numbers and how the mass force is organized. If the encampments had democratically elected a centralized leadership, its immediate task would have been to designate working groups with special assignments aimed at spreading and linking up the encampments on a city-wide, regional, and national level, and building direct support from the broader working class. Units of students could have been organized to go from classroom to classroom making a systematic appeal on behalf of the encampment for every sympathetic student and faculty member to come out in support.

Regular assemblies of students, professors, and campus staff could have been convened, in order to issue formal appeals for solidarity to the broader trade union movement, beginning with the faculty and campus unions, but also transport workers, the service industry unions, Teamsters, and unions like Starbucks Workers United and the UAW, whose leadership has made statements in solidarity with the Palestinians. A loud, public appeal of this nature would have put the labor leaders’ feet to the fire with the message that now is the time to turn words of solidarity into actions of solidarity.

To be successful, such efforts would have needed to be accompanied by organized pressure from within those unions as well, agitating among coworkers and demanding that the leadership step up to the fight. In other words, a network of workplace cells composed of class-conscious militants with political authority among their coworkers was an essential but missing ingredient.

Even in the absence of such a ready-made network of communist cells, groups of students could have been organized into mobile delegations of “flying agitators,” visiting nearby workplaces directly and bringing the urgent appeal for solidarity into the surrounding neighborhoods. With such a large portion of US college students who are also workers, the encampments could have made a list of workplaces where they already had at least one or two workers, who could be tasked with making solidarity appeals to their coworkers.

Other units could be dispatched to go door to door in working-class neighborhoods, explaining how the fight against the US-backed genocide in Gaza is linked to the fight for immediate working-class demands against capitalist interests: 78% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck while the imperialists send billions to fund the slaughter of innocent Palestinians. In this way, anyone who opposes the US support for Israel’s slaughter—now the majority of the population—could have been appealed to directly to take action to put an end to it.

If this degree of mobilization had taken place even in a handful of cities, efforts could have been made to amplify the communication and coordination between them. Declarations from the various encampments, along with statements of support or instances of broader solidarity, could have been publicized to multiply their effect and put the power of the working class front and center in the public view.

The assemblies could have been transformed into platforms for revolutionary speeches providing political clarity on the tasks and directives of the hour. This would have been a welcome development after months of speeches condemning the atrocities and hypocrisy of the state, but with little direction or calls to concrete action.

At each step, the aim would be to escalate the encampments from a form of protest to a coordinated wave of mass demonstrations and strikes, first on a citywide level, and then nationally. If the encampments were backed up by hundreds of thousands of workers in the streets, and linked with union actions to disrupt public transit and distribution of goods and services—paralyzing buses, subways, trucking, deliveries, shipping—the police raids would have been hobbled.

This kind of mass struggle would have been the only serious defense against the array of armed forces at the disposal of the state, from local police departments to the National Guard. This was shown at the height of the George Floyd uprising in June 2020, when local police departments were unable to contain the mass upsurge. The National Guard was then deployed across the country, but even that could not have stopped the movement if it had been led by committed class-struggle revolutionaries, as evidenced by multiple incidents of fraternization.

A successful struggle develops as larger layers of the population identify their interests with the interests of the broader movement. Agitation combined with education undermines the government and raises the political understanding of the students and workers. Any attempt to force the masses to adopt a position before they have been convinced is counterproductive.

This was a mistake made by some of the Columbia students during the Hamilton Hall occupation. They should have appealed to the workers to join the cause and tried to convince them. If they could not convince them, they should have respected the wishes of the janitorial staff not to participate and should have let them leave the building. This could lead to winning them over in the future, rather than potentially turning them against the movement by locking them in. Impatience generally plays a negative role in these situations.

In April 2024, as in June 2020, a mass communist party with roots in the working class could have facilitated the escalation of the class struggle in a way that revealed to the working class its own strength, its power to bring all of society to a grinding halt, and its own invincibility as the class that makes everything run. This is the only way for a working-class uprising—an intifada—to succeed in taking power out of the hands of the capitalist state.

Source: Joe Piette, Flickr

What will it take to build a revolutionary leadership?

It goes without saying that the scenario described above was not an immediate prospect over the last few weeks. However, this was not because such a course of action was precluded in theory, but because the necessary political organization for this kind of struggle has not yet been assembled in practice.

In short, a successful escalation along these lines would have required the presence of a revolutionary party of thousands of communist cells built in advance of the events of April 2024.

The encampments, and the broad scale of the protests leading up to them, prove that the social raw material for a fighting party is already present in the US. What’s needed is a force that can take the necessary immediate steps to call it into formation, give it structure, ideas, and direction.

The process of building that leadership is not merely an administrative or organizational task, but above all a political one that begins with maximum clarity of perspectives and class-war principles. In other words, it begins with the ideas of Marxism.

Although recent polls have provided abundant evidence that an entire generation of workers and youth identify with communism, the organized forces of Marxism are still a tiny minority in the movement. However, history shows that through systematic effort, a minority with clear and consistent ideas can not only impact events but can win the majority.

The horrors perpetrated by the state of Israel with the full endorsement of Wall Street and the White House are pushing millions to draw an unequivocally revolutionary conclusion: US imperialism itself must be overthrown, and this can only be achieved through a working-class revolution.

Not long ago, this idea was seen as extreme and unfeasible. In the conditions of 2024, it resonates with more force than at any time since the early 20th century. To borrow a phrase from Malcolm X, the problem isn’t that the communists are outnumbered, it’s that we’re out-organized—for now

The party we need will not emerge automatically, or all at once. The experience of the encampments shows the need for communists to engage as active participants in the struggle, while doing everything possible to communicate the path forward: mass methods of class struggle, class-independent organization that relies on the strength in numbers and the strategic power of the working class to bring society under its democratic control.

This is why the Revolutionary Communists of America energetically joined the encampment struggle while advocating that the demand for divestment take the form of a fight for faculty and student control over the campuses; that the boards of directors be replaced by boards of elected students, faculty, and campus workers; and that the demand for financial transparency take the form of a fight to open the books of the universities and assert democratic control over the funds. In short, the communists argued that the movement should rely only on the power of the working class to carry out its program, instead of hoping campus administrators or the state would bend to mere “pressure.”

Some may be demoralized by the way this most recent wave of struggle ended. But the bitter truth is that most struggles of the oppressed end in defeat. However, in this epoch of systemic capitalist crisis, the working class only needs to win once. This is what we need to prepare for.

By engaging politically in the struggle and bringing forward a class-war perspective, communists can make inroads among those actively seeking a way to transform society. This is the surest way to establish and train the communist cells that are urgently needed among the students, faculty, other unions, and workplaces.

Through the concerted action of determined class fighters, the mass revolutionary party that currently exists only in outline can be built into an unstoppable fighting force embracing millions of workers. Armed with the long view of history and a burning confidence in the revolutionary future, the RCA is working tirelessly to lay these foundations in preparation for the even more momentous struggles yet to come.