Student protests take over some campuses. At others, attention is elsewhere

BOSTON (AP) — Boston College students held a protest rally against the Israel-Hamas war last week.

Bullhorns were banned, lest the noise disturb studying for finals. Tents weren’t allowed. Students who’d been arrested at other Boston campus protests were barred. After an allotted hour, the students went quietly back to their rooms.

A student protest movement has washed over the country since police first tried to end an encampment at Columbia University in New York nearly two weeks ago. But while there have been fiery rhetoric and tumultuous arrests on high-profile campuses from New York to Los Angeles, millions of students across the country have continued with their daily routines of working their way through school, socializing and studying for exams.

The protests are demonstrating wide differences among Americans in 2024, even for groups that have tended to unite during divisive times such as the 1960s.

Take Boston, the city most identified with American higher education and a lens onto the diversity of student bodies’ reactions to the Israel-Hamas war.

Students have set up encampments on at least five campuses, including Northeastern University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. But calm has prevailed elsewhere in Boston.

“It’s just not the vibe at this school,” said Emmett Carrier, a junior studying biology at Boston College, a Jesuit institution with an enrollment of 15,000. “I don’t think they’re as committed to it here as they are at other schools.”

Boston College faculty and students had addressed the Israel-Hamas war in class discussions, through a faculty vigil and at a rally last week, “all of which were civil and respectful,” Boston College spokesperson Jack Dunn wrote in an email.

“It’s an atmosphere where students are very polite,” said Brinton Lykes, a professor of community psychology. “They will discuss things, debate things intellectually, but they are shockingly rule-bound.”

Juliana Parisi, a sophomore who attended the rally, said she thinks a lot of students who want to protest are afraid of the repercussions but also believes many students don’t want to get engaged.

“I do think that there is a good amount of apathy on campus,” she said.

It’s worth remembering that most campuses don’t have encampments, said Robert Cohen, a professor at New York University who has studied the history of U.S. student protests. Even at those that do, the number of students involved is often not enough to fill even a single large lecture hall, he noted.

A day before the Boston College rally last week, Lykes helped organize a faculty vigil where speakers talked about grieving those who had died in the conflict and the history of events in the Middle East. She said there were uniformed and plainclothes police at the event. She got requests to check university identification and to make people leave backpacks outside and found some of the demands ridiculous, she said.

At Boston University, a sprawling urban campus not far from Fenway Park with a student enrollment of more than 35,500, students have avoided encampments but set out chairs to represent Israeli hostages and held die-ins to bring attention to those killed in Gaza. On Wednesday, many students at the school were hunkered down over laptops in study halls and cafeterias gearing up for the end of the school year and looming finals.

“We have our finals coming up next week,” said Matt Przekop, a junior studying engineering. “People, if they were passionate, they wouldn’t really let this bar them from protesting.”

Brandon Colin O’Byrne, a freshmen who is also studying engineering, said students debate the issue but aren’t sitting in tents on campus.

“We have the school involved, we have students involved, we have individual groups involved,” he said. “We also have tension” between Jewish and Palestinian students, but it generates productive debates, he added.

A protest at Emerson College in downtown Boston ended when police forcibly removed protesters, arresting more than 100. Another protest at Northeastern was also broken up by police, who detained more than 100 protesters who had created a tent encampment on campus.

Other local universities have allowed protests and tent encampments, including MIT, Harvard and Tufts University, although officials at some of the schools cautioned that the protests can’t go on indefinitely. At Harvard, school officials opted to lock the gates to Harvard Yard — where protesters set up camp — to all but those with school IDs.

One thing that has remained consistent over decades of student protests, Cohen said, is that they are unpopular with the public. But the campus movement is raising public awareness of the Israel-Hamas war.

Cohen said he believes the protests will likely simmer down over the summer, as students return home. They could easily kick off again as the U.S. election season progresses, he said.


Perry reported from Meredith, New Hampshire.

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