DSA can Support Student Protests for Palestine

Students are organizing encampments to support Palestine all across the country. DSA can and should stand in solidarity with them.

 It was a freakishly warm day in early May when I went to my first Palestinian student encampment on the Auraria campus, a conglomerate of three separate universities that share one central campus. I lathered myself in layers of sunscreen and dressed in long sleeve clothes to protect my pale skin from the harsh Colorado sun. Wrapping my keffiyeh around my neck and backpack full of essentials with four cases of water in my trunk to donate to the students, I set off for the hectic drive downtown, and to the first major protest of my life. 

I had joined DSA in early 2024 as I became disillusioned with the callous response from both parties on the issue of Palestine. The more I opened my eyes to the two party system, the more I saw how alike Democrats and Republicans were in keeping the status quo. My bleeding heart couldn’t imagine how anyone could look at the horror I had seen on social media of Palestinians being murdered and still believe in the lies the government was pushing in backing Israel. I was apparently mistaken. 

In the mainstream news, student encampments had become a hate speech buzzword. Columbia, Cal Poly Humboldt, and City University of New York had already experienced immense police pressure and mass arrests. On both liberal and conservative sides, the kids were considered extremists, “Little Gazas” — as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-AR, so lovingly put it — trained rioters, antisemitic nazis  and a slew of other blatant xenophobic, racist lies. 

When I pulled up, I saw the small smattering of tents and quickly found my way around. Many of the people there were students, but other members of the community had shown up to show their solidarity. Denver DSA had been sharing posts from the encampment’s Instagram account to our Slack, where I had first heard about the camp.

I couldn’t fathom the idea that these students were violent extremists. What I saw in front of me were exhausted 20-year-olds, living on coffee and free food, rushing to turn in assignments at the last minute — something I could relate to as a college graduate of less than two years myself. In everyone I met, behind the tired eyes and jokes about finals hell, I saw hope.

The positive energy was palpable. Nobody wanted “death to America” as Fox News and MSNBC wanted everyone to believe. Speakers talked about a future that saw universities used for comprehensive liberation and learning, not destruction and colonization. One student told me “I don’t know what I’m going to do when this all ends. I haven’t felt this supported in all my life. I wish we could live like this all the time — the world out there doesn’t care about me.” There is a way to live like this, I thought: we just have to fight for it. 

Other conversations focused on the human toll in Palestine. I distinctly remember an enlightening conversation with an older gentleman who had been born and grew up in Jerusalem as a Palestinian. He came to the encampment everyday to stand with the students in solidarity, but I got a chance to talk to him in a small group setting in the camp’s memorial library. There were only about four of us gathered around in camp chairs, hanging on to every word he said. 

He talked about his father and what it was like before the Nakba started, when the first Jewish settlers and Palestinians lived in harmony until the Zionists moved in. He explained what his life was like growing up, why his family had to pay more for food and water. He said that Israel owns everything for Palestinians except for the air. The group listened quietly as he talked about the restrictions of his youth, where he could and couldn’t go, why he moved to America. One comment he made seeps into the front of my mind to this day. He said, “I didn’t expect all of these students and strangers to come out and support my people, the Palestinian people.” 

His people. That’s why we were all there. It still weighs on my heart. I have the privilege to distract myself from the crisis, even if it is just for a few hours. On that day, however, this stranger sat less than five feet from me and thanked all these kids for caring about his homeland. I could reach out and hold his hand. At that moment, everything became that much more painful for me. This man had done nothing but show me and these students compassion, and yet, I knew if he still lived in Jerusalem, he would be considered a third-class citizen. I know if he was still there, he could very well just be another sacrifice in the war. Those moments weigh on my heart. I can’t imagine not fighting for Palestine with those words ringing in my ears. 

While 95% of my experiences were peaceful, there were moments when I felt unsafe. I had been there less than an hour on the first day when a student said the police were coming. We had seen the brutality that other law enforcement had inflicted on protesters. Suddenly, I saw the swathes of blue marching down the street. Ten police cars had parked on the lawn to contain the less than 100 protestors currently in the camp, while a bus pulled up to take us to jail behind them. A sea of cops in riot gear stood in lines like row after row of racist corn stalks. We intertwined our elbows and sat on the ground, circling the tents.

I looked into these cops’ eyes and all I saw was a callous, indifferent sneer. We weren’t worth the time it would take them to arrest us. Over the next two hours, I saw people get arrested for speaking out, for telling cops to stop physically touching them — and we were considered lucky in Denver. We were far from the most violent use of police force nationally, and still I watched kids get body slammed to the ground, dragged off in zip-tie cuffs and shoulder checked left and right by law enforcement for two hours.

After the cops arrested 47 students and forced the tents to be moved on threat of destruction, they retreated to the sound of cheers after a group of pro-Palestinian protesters had marched to the campus from another protest to provide the bodies needed to avoid any more arrests. I learned afterwards many DSA members were part of the march, coming to stand with their YDSA comrades in need. 

One of the students arrested was a trans girl I went to high school with. When I heard of the conditions she was kept in, I was enraged. She was locked in a brightly lit glass cell by herself for 23 hours, where the fluorescent lights didn’t shut off at any time. Her wrists were swollen and sore from the zip cuffs, and she stated to me later that her cuffs were loose compared to other arrested protesters. She couldn’t call anyone, even legal help, for four hours. Other protesters were kept in crowded holding cells. She said one of the protestors lost feeling in his hands because of how tight the cuffs were on him.

This is how the police decided to treat kids who were quietly protesting on a lawn. All it did was galvanize the movement. The camp would grow to take up most of the quad. No matter how many students they threw in jail, the larger community, including DSA, rallied around to help the protesters in any way we could. 

Denver DSA and the Auraria student encampment worked hand in hand. Many of the leaders of the encampment were YDSA members, and our local DSA chapter even held our monthly May meeting at the encampment to show solidarity. Many members who are not part of our internationalism group hadn’t gotten a chance before to go out to see the camp, and many left with promises to return with supplies. 

The ending of the school year saw the dismantling of the encampments that hadn’t been forcibly removed. For some, it looked like a loss for the pro-Palestine side, but it’s not. The pro-Palestinian movement isn’t slowing down. It’s just begun, and with the encampments came a huge learning curve. Many young adults saw a world where socialism can be attainable. It wasn’t a dog-eat-dog world that the bourgeoisie want everyone to think is acceptable. People’s needs were met and treated with compassion in that camp, not indifference. What the student encampments have taught my generation is that adults are afraid of us when we come together.

As an organization DSA should support any and all encampments that spring up in the future, especially before the election in November. DSA and the encampment leaders have the same goals for both a permanent ceasefire and the liberation of Palestine. From what I saw, these students and community members want the world that DSA is fighting for, no matter how long it takes. 

DSA should have a three pronged approach to strengthen our relationship with the encampments and the student protestors in general. The first prong is clear lines of communication. DSA, both national and local chapters, need to promote the encampment and their needs both publicly and in the chapter ranks. We can stage more solidified, targeted protests if we work together. Having DSA or YDSA members on the ground at every or almost every encampment could keep both organizations open to ask for help or communicating needs. 

The second prong is working with the encampments that plan to move off campus grounds, at least for the summer break. I believe that the Palestinian movement can still gain traction if we set up encampments in highly public areas, like state capitol grounds, outside Israeli embassies, businesses on the BDS boycott list, and homes of political leaders, including the White House. If YDSA and DSA can join with the organizations that worked to set up the campus encampments to make more of a public statement this summer, the message of Palestine will still be in the public eye. This means direct action that the media can’t ignore and large scale actions that bring attention to Palestine. 

The third and last prong is support. I can’t stress this enough. DSA has to be on the ground with these student protests. There’s safety in numbers, and more bodies means that encampments can keep themselves safe. If DSA members can’t physically show up, we need to push the student’s bail funds, food and wellness needs, and other ways to support the students with physical or monetary donations. 

The student protesters aren’t going to be intimidated into leaving because of the threat of police presence. I know my generation is resilient. DSA has to stand on the right side of history by linking up hand in hand with the student encampments, or the people of Gaza will lose everything.