Fifty-four years ago this spring, four million students went on strike across the United States. Colleges were shut down and classes cancelled as young people protested their government’s war in Vietnam and the repression of their right to protest.

In Ohio, 1,000 members of the National Guard were ordered to occupy Kent State University campus and disperse anti-war demonstrators. For the state’s governor, the students were “the worst type of people that we harbour in America.”

The National Guard arrived on campus with bayonets, shotguns and long-range rifles to repress 3,000 unarmed student protestors. On the morning of May 4, 28 National Guard soldiers shot into the crowd, firing 67 bullets in under 15 seconds. Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder were killed. They were 19 and 20 years old.

"It was like a firing squad,” recalled one student. “History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” said Mark Twain. Just now US students are once again resisting their government’s foreign policy.

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Since October, the Biden Administration has approved and delivered more than 100 arms sales to Israel, despite the International Court of Justice’s ruling that IDF’s onslaught in Gaza constitutes a ‘plausible genocide’. The students have a clear message for their institutions too: End your complicity in Israeli apartheid. Tents have become a regular fixture on campus lawns as protests have spread to more than 130 US colleges and universities.

Having comprehensively lost the argument to the anti-war movement, US authorities have responded to the wave of encampments the only way they knew how. Under the watchful eye of their University’s management, peaceful demonstrators have been beaten, teargassed by police and wrestled to the ground while guns are trained on them. Some 2,500 students have been arrested across the ‘land of the free’ in recent weeks.

At Columbia University in New York last week, a police officer ‘accidentally’ fired his gun while clearing protesters from a building. The grim reality is this: Washington has turned a blind eye to the deaths of 17,000 children but created a moral panic about students peacefully erecting tents in Harvard’s Quad. In the aftermath of the Kent State massacre, students held banners that read “From My Lai to Kent State: Politicians are murderers”.

The Herald: New York City police officers take people into custody near the Columbia University campus in New York Tuesday, April 30, 2024, after a building taken over by protesters earlier in the day was cleared, along with a tent encampmentNew York City police officers take people into custody near the Columbia University campus in New York Tuesday, April 30, 2024, after a building taken over by protesters earlier in the day was cleared, along with a tent encampment (Image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Today, from Gaza to the University of Columbia, the violence of US imperialism is in full view once again. For seven months, the US state has endorsed unrelenting and indiscriminate violence in Palestine. Their inhumanity has found its way home. Decolonial scholars, like WEB DuBois, noted as early as 1900 that if “the black world is to be exploited and ravished and degraded” by the West, the results would be fatal not just for the global south but for Europe and America’s “high ideals of justice, freedom and culture.” These supposed ideals are unravelling as I write.

Student encampments have spread across the Atlantic, with at least 14 established on British campuses already. Just as American academic institutions have substantial ties to the arms industry, UK Universities hold partnerships worth more than £1bn with the defence sector.

Edinburgh University, where students are currently occupying the Old College Quad, has £30 million invested in BlackRock – the world’s largest asset manager with sizeable investments in Lockheed Martin and Boeing among others.

However, where tents have been pitched repression has followed. On Monday, 169 people were arrested at the University of Amsterdam. The following day 86 students were arrested at the Sorbonne University in Paris. In Britain, Rishi Sunak convened university vice-chancellors in Downing Street this week to urge them to quell Palestine protests. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson did not rule calling the police to clear protest camps. The university is a critical institution or it is nothing.

We live in an age when Vice-Chancellors and Government ministers – in Edinburgh and London – are working hand in glove to realise the latter part of Stuart Hall’s famous ultimatum. Neoliberalism’s ‘gig economy’ model plagues swathes of society and now the University too. Staff face wage cuts, casualisation and insecure work. Providing they can find a place to live, students are neglected by their institutions and alienated by an atomised, fragmented campus culture.

Against this backdrop, the upsurge in anti-war student activity is a reminder that the university can still be a critical institution – and students can win change. Following protests in the Catalan capital, the University of Barcelona has approved a motion to break institutional ties with Israel. Students at Trinity College in Dublin claimed a similar victory when school officials agreed to divest from blacklisted Israeli companies that have ties to the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Students have won major concessions on six campuses in the United States too. This week, Macklemore – who is Spotify’s 128th most listened-to artist worldwide – released a single entitled ‘HIND’S HALL’. Inspired by the student protests, the track pays tribute to Hind Rajab, a six-year-old girl killed in Gaza City earlier this year. “Can’t twist the truth that people out here are united,” raps Macklemore. His single is the latest reminder that governments which continue to excuse Israel’s crimes, even after they began bombarding Rafah this week, are wildly out of touch with those they represent.

The attacks on student protestors are a symptom of this weakness and attest to the growing strength of the anti-war movement.

Coll McCail is a Stop The War Scotland's student officer and a student at the University of Glasgow