University protests are 'biggest student movement of 21st century,' professor says

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Monday, April 29, 2024
Professor says protests are 'biggest student movement of 21st century'
History professors weigh in on the significance of student protests on college campuses over the Israel-Hamas war.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Student protests over the Israel-Hamas war have spread to colleges and universities across the country. In the San Francisco Bay Area, protest encampments have been set up at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Sonoma State just to name a few.

"I think it's the biggest student movement of the 21st century in the United States so it's very significant and it's a reflection of how much the war is upsetting students and the idea that the United States should be more cautious with what it does with its military aid," says Professor Robert Cohen.

Cohen is a history and social studies professor at NYU who has studied student activism. He says that over the past 60-plus years, student protests are unpopular among Americans, many of whom are culturally conservative. He believes what we've seen over the last two weeks is historic.

MORE: How universities are cracking down on a swell of tension months into student protests

"Never in the history of student protest have protests been suppressed with so little rule-breaking. In other words, the students at Columbia were sitting on a lawn. Students here were sitting on Gould Plaza in front of the business school I mean in the 60's you had to take over a building or something like that," said Cohen.

David Cortright who is professor emeritus at Notre Dame and visiting scholar at Cornell believes these student protests are growing, but the number of students protesting still doesn't compare to what we saw during the Vietnam antiwar protests of the 60's.

"For example after the Cambodia invasion and the killing of students at Kent State, there was a national student strike and there were student protests at more than 800 colleges and universities. Here I think we're seeing many dozens, it's hard to know what the total number is," said Cortright.

VIDEO: Which companies do protesting Stanford students want divestment from?

Saturday marks Day 3 of pro-Palestinian demonstrations at Stanford University. Here's a closer look at the school's ties and students' demands.

While most colleges and universities will finish their academic year in the coming weeks, both Cortright and Cohen say this issue doesn't appear as though it's going away anytime soon. Both said protester arrests seemed to ignite the movement. And both point to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as locations where we could see more of these student-led protests. The professors believe that these protester demands could be hard to come by.

"Trying to get universities to divest their holdings in companies that do business with Israel is problematic because over 30 states have laws against that," said Cohen.

Cortright believes that the calls of protesters being anti-Semitic are overblown, but also believes that the students need to do more to make it clear that they are against the initial attack by condemning Hamas.

VIDEO: Humboldt students, law enforcement clash during pro-Palestinian protest

California State Humboldt says its campus is closed after clash between students and law enforcement during pro-Palestinian protest.

"You need to build broad coalitions for movements to really be effective and you look historically to ones that had the broadest support across the political spectrum, and this movement is still young it hasn't done that yet, and I'd hope that they could reach out and bring in a lot of the Jewish students that agree with them," said Cortright.

At UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Sonoma State we have not seen vandalism or arrests.

Police have also kept a distance at those locations.

There's also a belief that university leadership has felt the pressure from politicians and donors to clear some of these protest encampments in certain states, something that the professors we spoke with believe, will only ignite the movement even more.

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