Nina Davis/Sun Photography Editor

Ralliers bring signs to support encampment on April 28, 2024.

May 2, 2024

FATTAL | The Feeling of the Encampment

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It feels… peaceful. 

Not in the sense of peaceful protest or the principles of nonviolence. It’s peaceful in that those overwhelming, vomit-inducing, perhaps unfixably terrifying problems of the world have shut up for five minutes. They’ve shut up in precisely the place where students are chanting about them and painting signs. It’s where the whole national media apparatus has decided to center their latest campaign of needless fear-mongering, and it feels peaceful. I can’t help but hyperbolize: The encampment is magical. 

I rarely get emotional while editing, but I found Prof. Rickford’s recent submission deeply moving: The encampment is “utopian in the sense that the terms of living that it demands are impossible under existing conditions.” He put it better than I could. But on an affective level, utopia is more than the aspirational call for revolution. For me, the encampment feels like utopia in that it reminds us of the possibility of a better world. By capturing a sliver of the Arts Quad and starting from scratch, the campers remind us that there is always another way — that there can be a better way. 

I don’t think of myself as naive. In fact, I’ve been recently overwhelmed by startling and increasing recognitions of human fallibility. A few weeks ago I wrote in my notes app that my breakup had made it impossible for me to become an anarchist: for anarchy you need to believe in people and you do…and then the person you believed in more than anyone else in the world loses your faith. Within the encampment I’ve tried to pay close attention to those limitations: escaping, for a moment, the crushing weight of the neoliberal university can only solve so much. The campers, braver than me, remain human. The cracks of sleep deprivation and the weariness of cold, rainy weather begin to reveal themselves as days go on. I can only imagine that in a week or two further niceties will fall away simply as a result of the prolonged difficult conditions. They don’t, and won’t ever always agree on anything — there is no one agreed process of liberation, personalities inevitably run up against each other and along some of the faultlines, disagreements manifest in demoralizing anger. But the tents stay up and the demands continue: They do not stop themselves. 

Around the world, we’re undoubtedly within a horrifying mask-off moment — if such a moment remains possible in an extended period of absolute institutional failure. Our newsfeeds are flooded with scenes of universities across the country who have invited violence against their own students, set against profound absence: We no longer see images from the once universities of Gaza; they have all been destroyed. I do not begrudge anyone who is unable to cynically see past the willingness of millions to endorse brutality rather than address genocide. For my part, though, I’ve never felt more confident. This isn’t the story of the evils of capitalist imperialism — that’s the story we’ve heard for the last month, last year, last decade. Today, the story is the rejection: Activists are opting out of that whole damn thing — this is what’s new and this is what matters. 

I know my presence in the encampment is a source of occasional anxiety. That is to say, I know I represent The Sun — an institution, an ossified institution. I can, should and must engage with counter-protestors, dissenters to the mission. My job description (reflection of the whole University in the pages of The Sun) will necessarily include voices against the encampment — sometimes strongly so. I am inextricable both from my personal identity as a leftist and my journalistic identity as the representative of a centrist, neoliberal organization. 

It’s uncomfortable to feel tepidly unwanted, but there’s another form of rejection that I find all the more encouraging. Just like the administrators and officers, the press can be made to feel obsolete. At the end of the day, the campers retain their own story — and the right to tell it. No institutions need exist in the encampment; no vestige of the world outside need participate; no one — not Martha Pollack, not The Sun, not the CUPD— holds an ounce of power in that one corner of the Arts Quad.

And so the institutions have lost their meaning. The campers recognize that the only thing holding our sham social contract together is their willingness to abide by it: watching genocide unfold, they have stopped abiding. At Columbia, it took the strongest police force in the world, equipped with their military-grade suppression system to get the students off the quad — and if you think that’s going to stop the protests, I have a bridge to sell you. Students are sending the same message they’ve received from administrations for decades — nothing you can do to stop us matters. Tens of thousands across the country have stared down suspension, job loss or arrest without visible fear. 

So, what does it mean when the administration’s gravest threats can no longer serve as a deterrent? What does it mean when people fully, truly, practically believe that together they have an unshakable strength? What does it mean when we act on the realization that our institutions need us more than we need them?

I suppose it means hope. I hope it means hope. 

Max Fattal is a third year in the School of Industrial Labor Relations and the associate editor of The Cornell Daily Sun. They can be reached at [email protected].