A Loving Message to Student Protesters

"Theirs is a politics of annihilation. Ours is a politics of collective survival."

A Loving Message to Student Protesters
Palestine solidarity protest signs line a fence at the DePaul University Campus in Chicago. (Photo: Kelly Hayes)

On Saturday, I had the privilege of having a remote conversation with a group of students who have organized a Palestine solidarity encampment at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I shared some opening remarks, facilitated small group conversations, and answered their questions. I was moved by their insights and their eagerness to learn. I am publishing my opening remarks to those students here today because I want to share these words with students across the country who are engaged in protest right now.

I am so grateful to have been invited to speak with you all today. I want to thank you for the work you are doing. As a Native person, I also want to say that this is what solidarity with Indigenous people looks like–not a mere acknowledgement of harm, but a willingness to challenge injustice in real time. Acknowledgment, on its own, avails us nothing, but solidarity, commitment, and collective action have the power to set us free. 

Solidarity involves a recognition of what we owe to each other as human beings. That doesn’t mean that justice work is selfless. I am Menominee. I am not Palestinian, but I know that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of the Palestinian people. How could it be otherwise? The weapons and mass surveillance techniques tested on Palestine are marketed all over the world. Israeli AI tech that selects human targets for assassination at an inhuman pace will proliferate. The dehumanization and erasure that obscures Palestinian suffering in the corporate press will be applied to us all in turn when we are deemed expendable or in the way. The environmental devastation of Palestinian land is emblematic of the ecocide of militarism. We live in an era of catastrophe and collapse. In these times, atrocity is normalized, and the disastrous harms of capitalism and imperialism are accelerating. Theirs is a politics of annihilation. Ours is a politics of collective survival. Protesters rejecting genocide are brutalized and criminalized, while the people who wage and facilitate genocide act without consequence. Over 30,000 Palestinians have been murdered by Israeli forces since October 7, while pundits act as movement critics, critiquing protests and obsessing over respectability, order, and the sanctity of private property.

Of course, you know all of this.

I am here today to talk to you about solidarity, encampments, and the work of movement building. You are here today because you have chosen to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people. You have defied a reigning culture of alienation and chosen connection and collectivity over individual concerns. To our oppressors, that’s scary stuff. Because to control us, and to control the course of history, the imperialists and the ruling class need to enforce our alienation. They can only do this by maintaining the illusion of our separateness. They want you to worry about yourself, your family, and perhaps, if you’re feeling charitable, an occasional stranger in need. They want you to focus on your finances, your streaming subscriptions, and what you can buy. They want you to doomscroll and bicker and to confuse punditry with political action. They want to erase the work you are doing, and if they cannot eclipse or silence you, they want to make you the whole story. So they defame, malign, and mischaracterize you. They sensationalize your protests and brutalize your friends, and they position your acts of refusal as the real problem–as though order, rather than life, were sacred–while a genocide rages on. I see you all having none of it. I have seen young people, again and again, bringing the focus back to Palestine and the freedom and survival of the Palestinian people. Organizing is always a narrative battle, and your work on that front is crucial in this moment.

Like many of you, I have been moved by the stories of loss, love, and survival that our Palestinian siblings have continued to share and enraged by the US government’s facilitation of atrocity. I have also been heartened by the actions of students like you, who have created encampments, seized administrative buildings, and taken other actions to defy a genocidal status quo. Divestment is an important tool, and challenging Israel’s violence through the institutions in which we have a stake is deeply important.

I am inspired by the protests being organized around the country, and drawing on my own experiences, I have some thoughts I would like to share about what you’re doing and what you’re up against. Protest has been a big part of my life. I have facilitated direct action workshops for thousands of people over the years and organized during a number of major movement moments, from Occupy to Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and some things you probably haven’t heard of. I have been called an “outside agitator” more times than I can count, so we have that in common.

When it comes to direct action, occupation is one of the most challenging tactics I have ever engaged with. I know what encampments can demand of people, emotionally, physically, and materially. This work can be incredibly draining, but it can also allow us to create spaces where we can dream together and hone our politics while demanding the world we want. Encampments can allow us to prefigure the social transformations we long for as we rehearse our ideas and put our analysis into lived action. Ruth Wilson Gilmore teaches us that “where life is precious, life is precious,” and over the years, I have experienced encampments that truly embody those words. So, as you resist, I urge you to look around at the space you are making together and ask yourselves, what practices and ways of living and being together here help cultivate the idea that life is truly precious? While it sounds simple, being precious to one another and refusing to abandon one another is the stuff of revolutionary politics in our time.

When we create spaces where people learn together, defend one another, and strive for a better world together, we can sometimes get a glimpse at our true potential. The beauty of such moments can make their fragility deeply unnerving. Occupation is a very combustible tactic. Everything we build in such environments could be torn asunder at any time. And yet we keep building and rebuilding our structures of resistance because they are bigger than what happens on our worst days–and sometimes, we win. Even when we lose, a great deal is cultivated in the space we hold together.

So, what will you grow in this moment? What values and ways of being and acting together will you sow in your work? Your demands are important, but so is creating space for transformation. To continue building our movements in this era of crisis, we must learn together and from each other. We must build a rebellious culture of care in opposition to the death-making, genocidal normalcy that will otherwise rule our lives. Protest is tactical work and it is cultural work. 

I also know how all-consuming protest encampments can become, which can make it hard to keep things in perspective. Do not allow your understanding of the struggle or your place within it to become wholly bound up in the tactic of occupation. The tactic will come and go. The strategic impacts of your protests and the trajectories of participants who build new relationships, analyses, and skill sets will continue to unfold across time and space. When this stage of resistance gives way to the next, I want you to find that you are stronger, wiser, and perhaps even braver than you were when your current efforts began. I want your analysis to be sharper and for you to feel more determined than ever to fight for what you believe in. I have seen that happen, and it has happened to me. I have also seen people burnt out by the demands of occupations or emotionally broken by the weight of repression. So, I urge you to remember that we constitute our movements. We don’t work for our movements, we live them. We are our movements. So, if you love the movement, care for yourself and your community, because if we are unwell, our movements are unwell.

Whatever happens next, remember that there will always be the next right thing to do. There is always a way to move toward the horizon of our values. “Where life is precious, life is precious.” So let’s be precious to each other.

Author’s Note: The students discussed the questions featured in this newsletter edition in small groups during our session.