Today's protests on campus will not be as large or violent as those of the last century

In a way, the black-and-white Palestinian scarf hanging over Hannah Sattler's shoulders this week and the 1968 tie-dye T-shirts are woven from a typical thread.

Like so many college students across the country protesting the Israel-Hamas war, Sattler feels the historical weight of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the Sixties and '70s.

“They always talked about the ’68 protests as kind of the North Star,” Sattler, 27, a graduate student in international human rights policy at Columbia University, said of campus organizers there.

“Even the decision to take over Hamilton Hall was the camp’s plan from the beginning,” she says. “Not only because it made a lot of logistical sense, but it also has this… strong historical connection to the protests of the '60s.”

Although it is likely to be tempting to match the nationwide campus protests to the anti-Vietnam War movement a half-century ago, Robert Cohen says that might be an overreaction.

“I would say this is the largest in the United States in the 21st century,” said Cohen, a professor of history and social sciences at New York University. “But you might say, 'That's like being the tallest building in Wichita, Kansas.'”

FILE - In this August 1970 file, debris is scattered at the Army Merthamatics Research Center in Sterling Hall following a bombing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  Forty years after the explosion on August 24, 1970 that killed one person, injured others and caused millions of dollars in damage, Leo Burt remains the last fugitive wanted by the FBI in connection with radical protest activities against the Vietnam War.  (Bruce Fritz/The Capital Times/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)
File Photo: Debris is scattered on the Army Merthamatics Research Center in Sterling Hall following a bombing on the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Bruce Fritz/The Capital Times/Wisconsin State Journal via AP

To date, there have been no bombings just like the August 1970 one on the University of Wisconsin, which killed a postdoctoral fellow and caused $6 million in damage. The infamous Kent State massacre in May 1970, when National Guard troops opened fire on protesters on the Ohio campus, killing 4 people, has not been repeated.

Police have cleared camps and made greater than 2,000 arrests, and a few, like Thursday's raid at UCLA, resulted in violent clashes. A police officer clearing Hamilton Hall in Columbia of protesters on Tuesday fired his weapon contained in the constructing. But elsewhere, demonstrations were peaceful and even led to agreements with the administration to handle student demands.

Still, some feel the situation is just moments away from tragedy, says Mark Naison, who took part within the sometimes violent protests in Columbia in 1968.

“People are afraid,” said Naison, a professor of history and African and African American studies at nearby Fordham University.

In some ways, it appears like the America of what Cohen calls “the long ’60s.”

In September 1970, barely five months after the tragedy at Kent State, the President's Commission on Campus Unrest delivered a “Letter to the American People” to Richard M. Nixon.

“This crisis has its roots in divisions in American society that are deeper than at any time since the Civil War,” the panel wrote. “The divisions are reflected in acts of violence and harsh rhetoric, as well as in the hostility of those Americans who see themselves as occupying opposing camps.”

Watching the swirl of emotion at universities from Connecticut to California, it appears like those words might have been written this week. Even U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert alluded to that earlier time.

“This is not the summer of love!” the Colorado Republican shouted through a megaphone during a visit to rebuke protesters at George Washington University on Wednesday.

But Cohen says emotions – and sheer numbers – are nowhere near the degrees they reached at the peak of the Vietnam era.

“See. NYU was one of the first locations to mobilize,” he says. “Maybe it's 200 students – maybe. There are 30,000 (undergraduate) students at NYU, right?”

Another difference that observers notice is the short motion taken by campus authorities. In 1968, students occupied Columbia's Hamilton Hall for nearly per week before authorities moved in. When the raid finally took place, greater than 700 people were arrested.

“It's funny because Columbia is very proud of … the history of activism of Columbia students,” said Ilana Gut, a senior on the university's partner school, Barnard College. “At least in the eyes of the demonstrators, their attitude towards today's activists is very ironic – that they are so proud of their former demonstrators, but so violently suppress those of today.”

Robert Korstad, who protested within the Sixties and is now professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, definitely sees comparisons.

Then as now, they protested against a violent war. And now students are also feeling a pervasive conflict, Korstad said, with the spate of mass shootings across the country and the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police.

“I really think about what motivates these young people and what they grew up with and thought about in their short lives,” he says.

Another worrying difference between then and now, says Jack Radey, is the shortage of respect in universities for various views.

Radey was a 17-year-old activist through the original Free Speech Movement on the University of California, Berkeley. He says today's students have succeeded in strengthening the Palestinian cause, although in some cases on the expense of civility.

“We viewed the students who did not join the free speech movement not as idiots or traitors, but as people we had to convince,” said Radey, president of the movement's archives. “You don’t do that with violence or overheated rhetoric.”

Some, like Korstad, consider the campus unrest hastened the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. Many of those protesting today want their colleges and universities to divest from firms that do business with Israel or otherwise contribute to the war effort.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, protesters are calling on MIT to finish all research contracts with the Israeli Defense Ministry, which they estimate total $11 million since 2015. Students there drew direct inspiration from the MIT protests against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, including looking for archives to check the strategies of those protesters, using among the same slogans on their signs, and establishing the camp in the identical location .

But the group also learned from the failure of protesters within the Eighties to persuade the campus to secede from South Africa.

“We recognize that disclosure and divestiture is a lengthy process,” said chemistry student David Berkinsky, who is an element of MIT’s Jews for Ceasefire group. “That's why we have such a targeted request. We think it's a reasonable question.”

Given the broad support for Israel, major changes on most campuses are unlikely, Cohen says.

“This is not an American war unless the Americans are, their firepower is being used by the Israelis,” Cohen says. “It’s different when American troops are there and potentially drafted.”

Still, students like Sattler now feel part of a bigger tradition.

The Baltimore native is Jewish but wore a keffiyeh scarf through the protests. She says that her parents took part within the anti-Vietnam protests when she was a student and that this struggle greatly influenced the present motion. She points out that the scholars watched a documentary about 1968 and had participants in those demonstrations confer with the demonstrators.

Sattler says the Columbia protesters were specifically trained in nonviolent tactics and de-escalation. “I wouldn’t be part of a movement if it wasn’t focused on nonviolence,” she says.
She's able to be arrested if that's how the authorities wish to respond.

But not everyone shares this level of commitment.

When asked if he felt a connection to the coed protesters of the Sixties and Nineteen Seventies, the freshman business marketing major replied innocently: “Are you talking about the women's suffrage movement?”

Earlier this week, police dismantled a small chain-link fence and nearly two dozen tents there. About 20 people were arrested.

Lang says he’ll proceed to protest. But he says he won't go to prison for it. “You have a lot more courage than me,” he said of those arrested. “They are much more willing to get involved than I am. I’m not willing to go that far.”

Breed reported from Raleigh, North Carolina; Gecker from San Francisco. Associated Press reporters Adam Geller, Cedar Attanasio and Noreen Nasir in New York; Bianca Vázquez Toness in Cambridge, Mass.; and Nick Perry in Meredith, NH also contributed.

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