Universities as part of the Empire

  • May 10, 2024

As part of the Empire, the Universities establish a strong control over the production and consumption of “knowledge” that is sanitized from the need for human liberation. And yet, in this choke hold, history presents junctures that have the potential of changing the consciousness of the masses, and we are living through one such juncture. The students are helping the masses see this. No amount of riot police or spin doctoring by intellectuals of the Empire can stop this change, writes a social activist from US.


Society owes a huge debt to the students across campuses of US universities. Through a lot of sacrifice and pain, they have yet again courageously exposed to the post-Vietnam generations that the Universities, especially the “elite” ones, are part of the global war machine. They are deeply invested in the ongoing Genocide in Palestine as they have been in the past US imperial wars across the world. The Universities are built on land of the indigenous people of North America that has been occupied by colonizing settlers. Many of these institutions have benefited from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. With their non-profit status in the US, the Universities have endowments bigger than the GDP of many countries. Harvard leads the column with a $50 Billion endowment – a sum of money most people in the world cannot comprehend even in their fantasy. This is closely followed by Yale, Stanford, Princeton…the who’s who that the younger generation is made to aspire for through huge marketing budgets of these entities.


When students across the campuses started protesting the ongoing Genocide in Palestine that the US is directly involved in, the ruling class began to sit up in their chairs. It was a threat to their profit margins, it was threatening to expose their active participation in the ongoing Genocide, it was threatening their monopoly over narratives and shaping the consciousness of large parts of the society. In other words, people would begin to understand that the Universities are yet another tool in the toolkit of the Empire along with military and militarized police. After the movement to stop the Vietnam war, the Universities have worked hard to rebuild their image and reshape the physical and psychological space on campus, lest something like this happen – but it did against all odds. It happened because the Empire cannot fool all the people, all the time – and in this case the students refused to be fooled or intimidated.


Police in riot gear and SWAT teams, with pepper spray, guns, helmets raided the flimsy tents set up by young minds speaking out against blatant injustice and violence on fellow humans. It was just that. These young folks were putting their bodies on the ground, making themselves vulnerable and telling the Empire that this inhumanity, barbarity, brutalization and mind numbing violence has to stop. The students peacefully setting up a few tents on the University lawn, doing their homework, talking to people, and collecting food became a threat to the Empire. The Empire could not withstand the moral high ground that the students gained by making themselves vulnerable and visible. They had to bring it down. The militarized riot police were supposed to convey the opposite of what the students actually stood for. While they were asking for peace and justice, the administration wanted to make them seem like a threat. As Howard Zinn had said during the Vietnam war – “They will say we are disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we are disturbing the war.”


But people are seeing through even this manipulation – seeing through the heavy air of the police pepper spray and the ruckus of their attacks at 3 am, when the students are at their most vulnerable. By making themselves vulnerable, the students exposed how vulnerable the Empire is.


Netanyahu, the main operative of the Empire running the Genocide in Palestine, is a 1976 graduate of MIT. He also worked in the Boston Consulting Group where he befriended Mitt Romney. The economic-political elite have a revolving door through Governments, Corporations, International Financial Institutions (World Bank, IMF) and of course Academia. Take the case of Larry Summers – who started teaching Economics in Harvard, went on to become the Chief Economist in the World Bank, Secretary of US Treasury (1999), President of Harvard University (2001), undignified exit (misogyny being one reason) from Harvard landed him in a Hedge Fund followed by becoming Director of the White House United States National Economic Council in the Obama administration. Minouche Shafik, the current president of Columbia University has been the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Vice President of World Bank, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund… and now in Columbia letting loose the lethal force of the NYPD on the students demanding justice peacefully. The NYPD had choked Eric Garner to death. As he gasped for breath, he said – I can’t breathe but the police continued to hold his face down on the street. Today the students are fighting so that we can all breathe as we battle the Empire’s choke hold.


Students from Netanyahu’s Alma Mater formed Scientists Against Genocide Encampment (SAGE) asking MIT to cut its ties to the Drone program which develops the technology that the Israeli Occupying Forces have used to kill and maim children, people in hospital ICUs, poets, parents, grandparents and all. It seems quite humanizing that anyone would call for that. Even Netanyahu might think differently if he spent some time with these students. In 1987, students had set up a shantytown asking MIT to cut ties to the Apartheid state in South Africa. It is exactly here, the present students have set up their tents with the slogan – Disclose, Divest, We Will Not Stop, We Will Not Rest! MIT has received $11 Million since 2015 from the Israeli Military. With the ongoing Genocide, this is all the students have been asking. With the urgency of the situation, they have not focussed on the numerous other ways MIT is embedded in the Military Industrial Complex.

Some counter protestors set up Israeli flags and pictures of people missing around the encampment. Some of these people even planted an Israeli flag on the fence set up around the encampment by the MIT police. Students did not take it down…because their humanity was winning anyways. It is usual to witness this on many campuses where there are barely any people defending the ongoing Genocide, but there are plenty of flags and high-quality printed posters. On the other side, students struggle to do their academic work, painting slogans on cardboards, managing with food donated by the community at large. In other words, people’s love and support is converted into people power, which the Empire fears. It is this fear that sent out the MIT police, Cambridge police, State Police in fear-inducing riot gear. We have the monopoly of violence, as if the Empire wanted to remind us. But you are not violent, so we will say you are violent which will then justify using the violence of the Empire on you!


As the students blocked the entrance to the garage of the Stata building on 9th May, police threw the students on the ground, kneeled on them, arrested them by twisting their arms like they meant to break the bones. The world has not recovered from the public murder of George Flyod by the police…and in Cambridge, people are still fighting for Justice for Faisal. A young Bangladeshi student experiencing mental distress was chased by Cambridge police and shot dead with 5 bullets into his chest full of love and hope. That was Jan 2023.


In the face of throwing students on the ground, they raised the slogan – Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? It was a rhetorical question saying that the police protect the ruling elite, and their self-given right to profit at any cost. Students put their bodies in front of the uniformed brutes (many trained in Israel) to convey this message. It went through loud and clear. Thank you, students, for educating society.


Universities run on the money and labor of students, graduate-students workers and all other workers. The graduate students, lecturers and campus workers are paid such abysmal wages that one can barely survive in the city around it and must take up a second job. In March 2023, Harvard encouraged its students to sign up for food stamps – a federal food assistance program. Before that, the graduate students had gone on strike twice asking for livable pay.


So, Universities are part of a political system that supports, and is supported by, an economic system that depends on unlimited profit on a limited planet. This system needs an established infrastructure of violence, duly dressed up as legal by rules and legislations framed by the Empire. As part of the Empire, the Universities establish a strong control over the production and consumption of “knowledge” that is sanitized from the need for human liberation. And yet, in this choke hold, history presents junctures that have the potential of changing the consciousness of the masses, and we are living through one such juncture. The students are helping the masses see this. No amount of riot police or spin doctoring by intellectuals of the Empire can stop this change. As Freire writes in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed –


But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first one is the people’s vocation…It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.


Thank you students!


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