US student protests: Democrats are worried this is 1968 again

History seems to be repeating itself with alarming effects for those hoping for a Biden victory this November

Pro-Palestinian protesters occupy Hamilton Hall on the campus of Columbia University in New York this week. Today’s young activists, facing a different set of risks than their predecessors did, often choose to obscure their identities. Photograph: Bing Guan/The New York Times

Disturbed by the mounting causalities in a horrific war, student protesters occupy Hamilton Hall at Columbia University. University administrators respond with a violent crackdown, summoning the New York City Police Department to break up the demonstration with brutal force, outraging many of its faculty members. This was the scene at Columbia University in 1968. Now, 56 years later, history seems to be repeating itself with alarming effects for those hoping for a Biden victory this November. For in 1968 the wave of protests most evident at Columbia drove a wedge through the Democratic coalition, allowing the victory of an authoritarian Republican as president.

Then students were protesting against Columbia’s colonial relationship to neighbouring Harlem and its ties to the military-industrial complex. The context was the US’s escalating war in Vietnam. Today students are demanding the university divest from companies that profit from Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. The context is the horrific Israeli war against the people of Gaza which is being fought with American diplomatic and military support. In both cases, Columbia is but the most high-profile of a wave of student demonstrations – and heavy-handed police crackdowns – taking place at university campuses across the United States. So far, more than 2,000 people have been arrested at protests on campuses across the country.

In the right conditions, protest can spread like wildfire. In 1968, Columbia was actually part of a global wave of wave of student-led demonstrations in places such as Derry, Mexico City, Paris and Prague. The rebellion originating in the US today may be inaugurating a broader global wave, as was the case with the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. Indeed, demonstrations in sympathy with US students have spread from the Sorbonne to the American University in Beirut.

But to really catch on as they did in 1968, such demonstrations will have to speak to more local grievances even while framing them in global terms. The current protests in the US are rooted in the specific context of contemporary American politics, where the war in Gaza is a highly contested issue in partisan politics.


In Ireland, there have been student demonstrations against the war in Gaza, including a recent contentious protest against the awarding of an honorary degree to Nancy Pelosi at UCD. These may escalate both through inspiration of US protests and in response to the continuing horror of the war in Gaza. But unlike in the US, there is a general consensus among Irish political elites that there must be an immediate stop to the war crimes – which could plausibly amount to genocide, the International Court of Justice has found – being committed by Israel. As such, the same escalating cycle of protest and repression is unlikely to play out here with the same intensity and impact.

A student encampment in front of Sproul Hall, the administrative building on the University of California Berkeley campus this week. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA-EFE

Student demonstrations in the US occur against the backdrop of its hyper-partisan politics. In particular, Republicans have used the war in Gaza to divide the Democratic coalition. In December, a House of Representatives committee chaired by Republican Elise Stefanik summoned the university presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania to defend their handling of student demonstrations over Gaza. Falsely equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, Republicans grilled the presidents for several hours, recalling the McCarthyist hearings of the 1950s. As then, their purpose was to discredit the left.

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Though the university presidents defended the core principle of academic freedom, their testimony was twisted as being insufficiently opposed to anti-Semitism. As a result, the presidents of Harvard and Pennsylvania were forced to resign. Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, was similarly grilled by the same committee in April. When she summoned the New York police to the campus, this was seen as her yielding to right-wing pressure.

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To many, it seems outrageous that Republicans can get away with smearing all opponents of Israel’s war as anti-Semitic when, as has always been the case, the real danger of anti-Semitism comes from the right. Stefanik has echoed the anti-Semitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory which claims that Jews are orchestrating the replacement of native-born whites with non-white immigrants. Donald Trump, when faced in 2017 with right-wing demonstrators in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us”, responded by calling them “his people” and remarking of them and anti-fascist counter-protesters that “there are good people on both sides”.

Republicans are effectively widening the fissures among Democrats over Gaza. But these divisions are mainly the fault of President Biden, who has offered steadfast support for Israel’s war from the start. He has recently become more outspoken about the need for a temporary ceasefire, for humanitarian relief for the people of Gaza, to prevent a widening conflict with Iran, and to restrain Israel’s most egregious acts. Here Biden has responded to the growing opposition to the war among Democrats which was evident in write-in campaigns in Democratic primaries. But he still pushed through a package of military aid for Israel last month, surrendering the one stick he had left to force Israel to end the war. And Biden badly needs the war to come to a quick end because in a close election he cannot afford to lose the votes of those who might sit out the election or vote for a third-party candidate such as Robert Kennedy Jr, who like his father in 1968, is running for president (though he is a very pale imitation of his dad).

The Gaza issue could well cost Biden the election this November in another repeat of 1968. Then the war in Vietnam forced Lyndon Johnson not to seek re-election. His replacement, Hubert Humphrey, lost a close contest because he lacked the votes of anti-war Democrats, especially those of young people. Divisions among the Democratic Party exploded at the party’s convention that summer when a violent “police riot” by Chicago policemen suppressed anti-war demonstrations. If the war in Gaza continues, expect another large anti-war protest at the Democratic convention this August. Once again it will be held in Chicago.

Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott associate professor in American History at Trinity College Dublin