Campus Sit-ins from 1968 Vietnam to 2024 Gaza

Ruth Hartleyantisemitism, Colonialism, Conflict, Feminism, History, Human rights, Politics, Power, War2 Comments

Campus Sit-ins 56 years ago    

Be a realist, demand the impossible.

I was late, as usual, for my sociology course at the London School of Economics because I had to take my 2-year-old child to the Infant Nursery School on Kingsway first. At the main entrance to the old building, I was invited to step under the rope that kept out the teaching staff and join the crowd of students packed inside. Somewhat mystified, as I didn’t know the London School of Economics Sit-In was underway again, I plonked myself down on the floor in the front row and ended up immortalised in a Time Magazine photograph.

Campus Sit-ins today

As I remember my involvement in those long-ago events I find myself questioning what is happening on Campuses in Britain and the United States today. War is the reason for these campus protests, but they are entirely different, not only because there’s a lifetime between them, but there is little similarity in the causes.  The Indochina War was about the ending of colonial control. When it turned into the Vietnam War it was about American conscription, the Cold War and the fight against totalitarianism and communism. Every student knew someone who was avoiding conscription. The Gaza/Israel conflict is, at one level, an ancient Middle-Eastern conflict, at another, a complex modern battle over human rights, land and sovereignty and a seemingly impossible, but essential two-state solution. It is also a worldwide war about culture, fundamentalism, power and whether or not the Jewish people are expendable, or should be.

In 1968 the LSE was a shambles

That was reason enough for student protest. The library was short of standard books – some had to be chained down so they didn’t vanish. You arrived early in the library or booked a slot – difficult for me with a child. There were too many students and teaching was of an inferior quality (though I did have a retired psychiatrist as a therapist on the Student Health Service). Walter Adams had been appointed Director of LSE. Adams set up the multiracial university that served the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, but colonialism ended for Malawi and Zambia while Southern Rhodesia’s settlers declared UDI. Adams’ record was seen as tainted and the students objected to his appointment.     

International students

Higher education has always been universal and student exchanges were common. It was the time of the Cold War, Civil Rights movements and post-colonialism, so the student body included Americans, draft dodgers, and exiled radical students from Southern Africa. Student campuses full of the Baby Boomer generation erupted in Britain, France and the US and the rallying cry for them all was anti-war and anti-Vietnam War. Of course, I was among the demonstrators. Ronnie Kasrils whom I knew, and who became the South African Minister of Intelligence Services, was also at LSE then. Union members were involved in the Sit-In as well as radical graduates and junior lecturers like Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali.


Those days were nothing like the current campus sit-ins. Discussions then were broad-ranging debates, noisy, open and shared. Today’s campus sit-ins seem to be guarded by people as mute as tongueless eunuchs and as masked as the Klu-Klux-Klan. If there is any universal element apart from the provision of green tents, it appears to be secret and may not even be entirely student-led.


In 1968 I remember standing timidly outside the student theatre while listening to braver women students than me, some also from the Third World and Palestine, who pointed out that the whole patriarchal academic establishment, including most protesters, were male and misogynist. According to Sheila Rowbottom, this realisation helped fuel the 1970s Women’s Movements that followed and that I joined. I find myself again at odds with the current campus sit-ins – they say they support Gaza but, apparently not all the Gazans, as they do not speak against rape or speak up for Gazan women’s rights or the rights of LGBT+ people.

Authoritarianism and autonomy

I fell out with one element in the student revolution then and still hold to that opinion today. That element is not only found within the left-wing community and in every part of society and community – it belongs to an authoritarian mindset and it is fundamentally undemocratic. Allowing people to act with autonomy, however, is a risk. Ironically, the freedom to choose and to make your own decisions can cause problems for democracy, yet if people can’t act with autonomy there can be no democracy. Israel is a democracy threatened by the misgovernment of its leader, Netanyahu. Hamas is not democratic and never will be.

Gaza and Israel

The Gaza/Israel conflict is tragic, terrible, and incredibly complicated. It is breaking my heart and it is breaking the hearts of so many concerned and caring people. There can be no one-sided solution. The people of Gaza and Israel must find, make and accept a solution together. Acts of autonomy and acts of freedom have to work for everyone, not for one side alone. Debate must be part of the solution, so let’s have the noisy but open racket of the Soixante-Huitards and not the masked silence of today’s fearful and intimidating Campus protests.

2 Comments on “Campus Sit-ins from 1968 Vietnam to 2024 Gaza”

  1. Aviva Ron

    Campus sit-in at LSE and debates were held by students, learning about development and justice. Some liked radical thinking but were not voilent. USA university sit-ins are held by students who have no clue about development, want to join any trend that uses the word justice, in any context, they are not interested in context anyway, together with “infiltrators” to the campus that brain-washes them and gives them kafiehs to wear. These kids, who parents pay US$100,000 annual tuition, shout slogans they don’t bother to understand. Anti-Zionism takes the form of anti-semitism, and university presidents take very slow action because of the huge funds they get from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The South African government was bailed out by Qatar – the loan was repaid by South African going to the International Court of Justice to accuse Israel of genocide.
    If in another country but Israel, over 250 people had watched brutal murder, some murdered first and others kidnapped alive by a terrorist organization, which has not let the Red Cross visit even one of the 128 hostages still held in Gaza – what would the world say. Evidence makes no difference. I have no answers, only feel sorrow and disgust.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      My dear friend Aviva,
      I think of you every day knowing the heartbreak that you are going through. We all feel sorrow for the terrible suffering that people are enduring. I think you are right – in the 60s we were readier to discuss and to think through our attitudes and our actions and to change our opinions. That is not happening on the campuses or on the streets today. Shallow opinions and simplistic ideas and a lack of realism are supported by a social media that both exaggerates, deforms and avoids the hard tasks of finding solutions to the pressing problems of today. I think the protests are by a minority but a very noisy one.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.