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Defend the encampments!

Reflections on the Zionist assault at UCLA

Julian Yin helped confront Zionist thugs at their counter-rally near UCLA’s pro-Palestine encampment on April 28. Two nights later came a five-hour assault on the encampment by a Zionist mob, and cops violently cleared the space the following night. Yin argues that we should understand these events as fascist attacks and calls for the militant defense of the Palestine solidarity encampments.

As we publish this, the 48,000 California academic workers of UAW 4811 are completing a strike authorization vote called to protest the University of California’s actions against peaceful protesters.

Zionists organized their first major counter-demonstration against the Gaza solidarity encampments at UCLA on April 28, collecting over $60,000 in donations a couple of days prior on GoFundMe. I joined other pro-Palestine protesters that day to oppose them, and a sizable group of us took over their event at Dickson Court for nearly an hour, pressuring them back and delaying the event. We were physically assaulted and surrounded by the Zionists but quickly regrouped right outside and ended up with a large contingent of protesters that quickly rivaled the size of the Zionist rally.

The Palestine rally soon became the last one standing as the Zionist rally ended relatively quickly. A few days later, on the eve of May Day, a mob of dozens of Zionists returned to assault the Gaza solidarity encampment at UCLA, spraying mace, beating up protesters, and shooting fireworks into the encampment—all while shrieking genocidal slogans like, “the second Nakba!” The encampment successfully withstood this night of violent attacks. The police stood by for hours, and campus security reportedly fled from sight. On the night of May 1, a few Zionists returned, but this time they were supported by three different police units that directly waged war on the encampment. Thousands of students and community allies—many coming straight from local May Day rallies—bravely withstood different waves of police onslaught that continued into the early morning. The overnight battle ended in a tactical defeat, as more than a hundred protesters were arrested, some suffering multiple head injuries resulting from rubber bullets.

Let’s be clear: This is fascist mob violence backed by the police force of a liberal regime. These incidents are among countless incidences of state and Zionist violence on the encampments that have sprouted across the nation in recent weeks. Late April marked a qualitative shift in the reaction against the global solidarity movement with Palestine: Zionist counter-insurgency has escalated from pressuring state, media, and other civic institutions to mobilizing popular forces in the streets.

Socialists and mass movements must not allow this popular fascist militancy to fester. At this moment, militant self-defense—even without strong working-class consciousness just yet—is crucial to building the potential for workers’ collective action as a class. A practical readiness against Zionist militancy can encourage militant workers to develop mass organizations as an alternative to the Democratic Party, which has abetted the Zionists by repressing pro-Palestine protesters with police violence at every turn.

Fascism erodes broad civil liberties across all sectors of society, but even more specifically, as Leon Trotsky wrote,

The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

The task for socialists is straightforward. I quote my fellow Tempest member Alvaro Maldonado—a working-class Chicano Marxist who has mobilized against the Minutemen, SOS, and other armed far-right forces threatening immigrant movements in Los Angeles in the 2000s—who said on the eve of the April 28 Zionist rally that we both helped to disrupt: “It is crucial that the student camp not be allowed to be overwhelmed by the Zionists, as it could set an example and spark a reaction nationally by fascists and other reactionary forces.”

April 28, video 1: Pro-Palestine protesters push past campus security and take over the Zionist rally minutes before its scheduled start. Video by the author.

It is no coincidence that working-class students and workers have been at the forefront of the rebellion for Palestine, just as they are also the ones in the most direct line of fire. Cal Poly Humboldt, a campus in which nearly a fifth of the students were unhoused as recently as last year, fought the police and nearly took over the whole university with barricades at the encampment’s height. UCLA and CUNY students have both successfully resisted Zionist and police assaults. The emergent wave of graduate workers’ unionization struggles in recent years, like the 2022 UC strike, has provided the foundation for mobilizations at these universities as well.

As Lenin remarked on the St. Petersburg student strike in 1908, we must not “divide every student movement beforehand into compulsory ‘stages,’ and make sure that each stage is properly gone through, out of fear of switching over to ‘untimely political actions, etc.”

Socialists, he writes, must “agitate for political action, making use of all possibilities, all conditions and, first and foremost, all mass conflicts between advanced elements, whatever they are.”

In our period, we must firmly recognize that this is not simply a wave of student struggles separate from workers’ movements, but a mass mobilization led by a student-worker alliance unfolding from the campuses. Mass workers’ organizing on campus enabled the student-led solidarity for Gaza, as academic workers from UAW 4811’s 2022 strike formed a key base for the UCLA encampment. “Rank and File for a Democratic Union”—a militant group of rank-and-file workers that emerged from the strike—are now running a “Reform UC-UAW” slate in the union elections in the local with a firm pro-Palestine platform for divestment. At the same time, anti-fascist self-defense by academic workers and community allies (despite its tactical defeat) directly paved the way for the local, representing over 48,000 academic workers, many of whom were directly involved in the UCLA battles, to call for a historic strike authorization vote. The rationale for the potential strike lies in identifying UCLA’s violent attacks on its academic workers as an unfair labor practice (following the 3000-member-strong UAW 872’s unfair labor practice complaint for the arrests of nearly a hundred students and workers in the prior week at the University of Southern California). In this case, the possibility of workers’ mass action emerged from concrete struggles resisting fascists’ armed attacks. We should not fetishize the latter as a substitute for long-term political strategy, but nonetheless recognize that anti-fascist self-defense is a crucial part of defending and extending workers’ gains, especially in this climate of repression.

Reflecting on the urgency of fascism’s rise in France in 1934, Trotsky observed that fascism “directly” and “immediately threatens” the different means and institutions of working-class struggle—from its organizations to its press—and these we must “conserve” and “strengthen,” coupled with means of self-defense. As he wrote,

Fascism finds unconscious helpers in all those who say that the “physical struggle” is impermissible or hopeless.… Nothing is so dangerous for the proletariat, especially in the present situation, as the sugared poison of false hopes. Nothing increases the insolence of the fascists so much as “flabby pacifism” on the part of the workers’ organizations. Nothing so destroys the confidence of the middle classes in the working-class as temporizing, passivity, and the absence of the will to struggle.

Our conditions today are not the same as 1934, nor does fascism take the exact same form. The Zionist agitators may be the fringes of a far-right movement still to be coalesced into durable organization. But to underestimate such elements in their infancy risks further ceding ground to the right, which has been increasingly emboldened during the Trump years and may continue to congeal. As another Tempest comrade, Jonah ben Avraham, observed in Israeli politics last year before October 7, though far-right Kahanists remain a minority, they now have more power than ever to influence the agenda of the whole Israeli government, since “formal disaffiliation from fascism in no way inoculates a right-wing electoral party or coalition from surrendering leadership to a fascist vanguard.” Such forces have played a key role in empowering the genocidal destruction of Gaza in a matter of months.

April 28, video 2: Pro-Palestine protesters face off Zionists at their rally, moments before Zionists began physically assaulting protestors. Video by the author.

Ben Avraham also correctly points out then that “the U.S. fascist movement is, no doubt, a decade or more behind in this process compared to the Israeli right”—but nonetheless, “a growing fascist parasite on the mainstream right’s political base can metastasize in the right social, political, and economic environment and infect the whole.” Ben Avraham’s other warning, unfortunately, is also true: “fascism doesn’t creep. It explodes. There is no incremental road to fascism because it can only emerge as a revolutionary response to a profound social crisis.” The rapid congealing of Israeli and US fascist popular forces in the wake of October 7 may be quickening this rise of fascism in a matter of weeks and months, not decades—now firmly aided by the party still proclaimed by some in the Left as the “lesser-evil” alternative to fascism.

As Ernest Mandel pointed out in a debate with Joseph Hansen in the Fourth International in 1973, the point is that we must not wait to mobilize tens of millions of workers to organize as a class before openly confronting fascists: Mandel states (building on Trotsky), “Only by successfully breaking the fascists’ terror first in a few meetings and neighborhoods, then in key towns and provinces, and finally in the whole country, are the preconditions created for ‘mobilizing tens of millions.’”

Militant self-defense, even without significant participation of the working class, is precisely key to arousing the masses toward greater consciousness and action. This is not done through clandestine armed units and conspiratorial organizing, but by encouraging more and more workers to recognize and act on the basic need for self-defense in upcoming actions, creating, as Trotsky said, “an atmosphere of ardent sympathy and active support,” and developing a political campaign that must expand in “meetings, factories, in the streets and on the public squares.”

Thus, this is not a general call for everyone to rise up in arms in guerrilla warfare as an adventurist substitution for class struggle, but to understand our next steps from the concrete conditions of the encampments, which have seen—and in some cases, successfully resisted—police and fascist attacks.

Workers and socialists must mobilize to defend the encampments as a key priority here in the United States. We must expose these Zionist agitators, protest them at their homes and workplaces, and give them no space to rest, regroup, and expand. It would be dogmatic to see this work as a distraction from the class struggle. The solidarity movement with Palestine has sharpened the class consciousness (almost overnight) of every emergent working-class struggle brewing from the Movement for Black Lives into the labor upsurge since the start of the pandemic.

Trotsky wrote,

It is nonsense to say that, in itself, the organization of the militia leads to adventures, provokes the enemy, replaces the political struggle by physical struggle, etc. In all these phrases, there is nothing but political cowardice.

When we witness the rise of fascist militancy coupled with state violence, there can be no mechanical separation between the “political” and “physical” struggle. Militant self-defense on the streets can empower workers to understand that their independent self-organization is the best bulwark against fascism, not any “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party (which has been inconsistent, at best, in defending Palestinian liberation). On the other hand, we must also not fetishize street action at the expense of cultivating mass organizations in a united front toward a more cohesive political strategy. We need a militant mass movement against the Zionists and a political alternative to the two-party system that empowers them, from now and into the November elections.

The speed and decisiveness with which UAW 4811 called for a strike authorization vote show that some tactical defeats (like the ones at UCLA) do not delegitimize a broader need for self-defense or shatter the confidence of the working class; on the contrary, the lack of a political strategy that boldly acknowledges the need for self-defense against fascism would precisely be what erodes working-class organization at a critical stage. We must quicken these protests toward mass organization, walkouts, strikes, and broad spaces for political discussion—all while recognizing that being able to defend such encampments and each other against armed attacks by fascists is a precondition for mass action.

At the same time, anti-fascist action only opens up the space for independent political struggle led by workers, but in itself, does not guarantee or model a clear strategic path forward. More militant asks by some rank and file workers, Rank and File for a Democratic Union, UCLA Students for Justice in Palestine, Faculty for Justice in Palestine, and the UC Divest coalition, which called for law enforcement agencies to be removed from campus and divestment from all companies complicit in Israeli occupation (not just weapons firms), were struck from the official demands for the UAW 4811 strike. The strike authorization vote sent to union members pre-determines the strike’s end date as no later than June 30th. As a rank-and-file UAW 4811 member points out, this aspect was not clearly communicated to members or discussed in union meetings beforehand, and suggests a dangerous willingness by union leadership to prescribe an end date to striking that may erode striking workers’ bargaining power.

And so, translating the militancy of anti-fascist action into militancy in our political demands within mass organizations is not given: socialists and militant workers must organize collectively to push for this link to rebuild the confidence and sharpen the long-term political horizon of the working class.

The lightning speed at which Gaza solidarity encampments are gaining and losing ground in different regions shows that the encampments may be an important step toward building effective counter-hegemony against imperialism at home—though we must not mistake this as a sure and steady fortification. The encampments represent and quicken mass insurgency against Zionism at a critical moment, but UCLA shows that our class enemies can dismantle these fortresses as quickly as we erect them.

At the same time, the encampments demonstrate that the hegemony of Zionist propaganda, desperately amplified and repeated by politicians and mainstream news organizations on top of a months-long media blackout on pro-Palestine actions—is not impenetrable. As the great Marxist theorist of hegemony Antonio Gramsci admits, “The structures of national life are embryonic and loose, and incapable of becoming ‘trench’ or ‘fortress.’” The successes of these mass encampments are a culmination of years of labor, anti-racist, queer, disability justice, and other liberatory struggles that are rebuilding working-class consciousness after decades of ruling class onslaught.

April 28, video 3: Pro-Palestine protesters regroup into our own mass rally a few yards away after being ejected from Zionists’ space. Video by the author.

But also, the encampments’ uneven and ephemeral character exposes the tenuous nature of the emergent wave of student and labor militancy in recent years. Ruling class reaction to emergent struggles may come not gradually, but in one abrupt and coordinated swoop, be it the state clampdown on UCLA last Wednesday or the broader climate of neo-McCarthyite repression of social movements. We must be ready to update our slogans and shift tactics on the ground to effectively keep building on this momentum for divestment, be it within the parameters of a single institution or in the larger perspective of the global movement against imperialism.

In a similar vein, we must also remember that the class struggle does not always mainly proceed through ‘economic’ or ‘bread and butter’ issues, and we will not win by appealing simply to such registers. Class enemies understand that the different identities of workers are irreducibly interconnected. At the Zionist rally, I witnessed the convergence of different reactionary ideologies reinforced by physical violence by Zionists. They hurled Anti-Black slurs at Black pro-Palestinian protestors. I personally experienced at least several different instances of Sinophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric, with Zionists questioning which country I was from, telling me to go back to China, etc.

What the UCLA encampment experienced on April 30 and May 1 exceeded what I encountered on April 28. Five days after the UCLA encampment was swept, members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), a group founded by the fascist Meir Kahane—which had physically targeted Arab and Muslim people in the past—appeared at the University of Toronto encampment to harass the protesters. Two days after the JDL’s Toronto appearance, another man linked to the JDL rammed his car into protesters around the Columbia encampment in New York. In the face of Zionist aggression, we must be flexible in how we define de-escalation and defense: being prepared to fight back may be the best way to defend, de-escalate, and arouse class consciousness.

Defend the campus encampments! From the river to the sea, free Palestine!

Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”

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Julian Yin View All

Julian Yin is a member of Tempest Collective, a rank-and-file member of SEIU, and an academic worker