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In defense of student activism

Tyler Jackman

Managing Editor

The juxtaposed spikes in activism by students in the 2020s and the pushback by our educational and political institutions are impossible to ignore.

Across the United States, tensions have surged in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. A Cornell University student using a pseudonym told Al-Jazeera how he is careful to identity himself during any pro-Palestinian protests for fear of backlash. These fears are not unfounded; even in Rhode Island, an established politician like Providence City Council member Miguel Sanchez has been fired from his position in Gov. Dan McKee’s office for attending a pro-Palestinian rally, drawing scorn from the ACLU and near-silence from McKee’s administration. If politicians are not safe from consequences of free speech, then now is the time for students to take note.

As mirroring incidents of antisemitism grow on college campuses, outrage has grown from the grassroots to the U.S. Congress. Although promising to see antisemitic activity disavowed, what is equally as telling is what has not been in the crosshairs of public discourse; a spirited defense of student activism.

Photo by Lara Jameson from

Student activism is as old as the university system itself and was born in the U.S. through activism on historically Black campuses in the 1920s. Particularly, the anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 70s acted as the catalyst in which youth voices could be unmistakably heard across the nation. In more modern times, students have been galvanized into action against gun violence following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, founding the advocacy group Never Again MSD and participating in direct actions across the U.S.

The shooting in Parkland, however, brought a wave of disparagement towards student activists from those in power. X González, one of the leading voices against gun violence from Parkland, was maligned by right-wing politicians and media and became the target of a myriad of conspiracy theories. David Hogg, another Parkland activist, was also a target of these attacks. Notably, a viral video showed Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) accosting him on the street, accusing him of being a “crisis actor” paid by billionaire George Soros.

Now, political forces see attacking student activism as both a policy point and effective vote-grabber. By disparaging “woke” college campuses, they can foster distrust against younger voters, who typically lean towards more leftist policies, and further their own political power.

For a clear example, take Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 presidential election, as living evidence. DeSantis spoke at an event in Las Vegas held by the Republican Jewish Coalition where he slammed college campuses as “captured and corrupted by a woke agenda.” Naturally, one would assume that DeSantis seeks to prioritize neutralizing political activity on campus, but that assumption would be sorely mistaken. Under his governorship, he prioritized an overhaul of the Florida educational system and notably passed the Parental Rights in Education Act, popularly known as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which freezes all discussion of gender and sexuality in Florida schools.

DeSantis didn’t stop at Florida schools, however; he set his sights on college campuses immediately. In a previous article for The Anchor, I noted his hostile takeover of New College of Florida that rapidly followed his right-wing educational reforms. In this, DeSantis moved to oust the board of the public college, transforming New College from an unorthodox progressive institution into a bastion of populist and nationalist-conservative education. DeSantis doesn’t seek to end student activism; he wants to mold it to fit his principles.

He is not alone. Law firms have rescinded job offers towards students who have expressed sympathy towards the Palestinian people. At Harvard University, a billboard truck drove through campus streets showing the names and faces of pro-Palestinian students, labeling them “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.” Of course, politicians have fanned these flames immensely, railing against “woke” campuses and threatening retaliations similar to DeSantis’ actions. But what can be done to cool these tensions, shrink incidents of hate and retaliation and defend the tradition of student activism? An honest and open dialogue is a good start.

The Israel-Hamas war, like many flashpoint social issues, has a complex history. In times where tensions flare like the current moment, colleges must use their influence and resources to educate students and host open discussions on each side of the issue. Lawyer-drafted public relations statements solve nothing and alleviate no tensions. At the same time, colleges and universities must make clear that while they disavow hate like antisemitism and Islamophobia, they also disavow in equal measure any retaliation against students for demonstrating openly and freely.

Unless our educational institutions find the courage to do this instead of caving into political and monied interests, then the next generation of student activism, the same activism that pushed the Civil Rights and antiwar movements to the mainstream, will be in jeopardy.


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