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No Encampment, No Tents: Where Princeton’s Protest Found Its Gravity

LocalNo Encampment, No Tents: Where Princeton’s Protest Found Its Gravity

Hunger strikes are typically the third act of political protest, the point at which the conventional provocations, having failed to yield the desired result, push the most impassioned closer toward martyrdom. The eruptions that have marked campus life around the country these past several weeks have entered this phase at Princeton University, where, on Tuesday, about a dozen students occupying a corner of Cannon Green were on the fifth day of a fast in solidarity with the idea of Palestinian liberation.

“What the university is making abundantly clear is that they would rather let students starve than enter a dialogue,” David Chmielewski, one of the strikers, a soft-spoken senior, told me.

Princeton retains the most patrician air of the Ivies — especially on a warm afternoon in May with a flowering 500-acre campus distinguished by what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “a lazy beauty.” On Nassau Street, which runs parallel to campus on the northern edge, you can buy a Patek Philippe watch from a 112-year old jeweler that maintains a branch in Palm Beach. Princeton has been less responsive to student demands around the war in Gaza than some of its peers. On Monday, the university’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, spoke for the first time with a group of students and faculty about divestment and disassociation from Israel, a meeting that lasted only an hour, and one that the objectors found unproductive.

The discussion had followed a sit-in that began on April 25 and then the occupation of an administrative building four days later, where 13 students were arrested. The hunger strikers have said that they will continue to limit themselves to water until the conversations around disentangling from Israel become substantive and the university allows students who have been arrested back on campus, dismissing the disciplinary charges against them.

The likelihood of that kind of concession does not seem especially promising. At the meeting, according to a statement issued by the university later on, Mr. Eisgruber made it clear to protesters that there was a “need for accountability” — that students who had broken rules would have to endure the consequences — and that divestment at Princeton “required a formal determination that campus consensus” was “possible.” This seemed like an elusive standard to uphold in a community of thousands of people with very strong opinions. It was also a familiar refrain.

Beyond the area where the hunger strikers have settled in, Cannon Green has functioned as the center of the broader protest, an encampment where neither tents nor sleep have been permitted. On Tuesday afternoon, Gyan Prakash, Princeton’s Dayton-Stockton professor of history, stopped by before a rally to which the 80-year-old activist and philosopher Angela Davis had sent a note of encouragement. Professor Prakash was fasting that day to stand with the hunger strikers; a few days earlier he had cleared out six bags of trash for the larger group of protesters to whom local businesses had donated food. Doctors from the area were also volunteering their time to check in on the strikers.

Many of the grown-ups essentially have been on board. Professor Prakash was one of more than 120 faculty members who signed a letter last week condemning the “criminalization, gross mischaracterization and harassment of nonviolent student protesters,” and calling for the “immediate resignation” of a vice president whom they viewed as largely responsible. Mr. Eisgruber quickly defended the administrator as “caring deeply and compassionately about every person on this campus.”

The call for divestment from Israel is not new. Ten years ago, the faculty unsuccessfully petitioned the administration to sever connections with Israel; then, too, Professor Prakash said, the response centered on the difficulties of achieving “consensus.”

Notably, the student body did not play a significant part in that initiative. But greater commitments to racial and economic diversity in the decade since have shifted the energy on campus. Princeton has long maintained a reputation, perhaps unfairly, for political apathy — an undergraduate life contained in what is sometimes called the “orange bubble.”

But the puncture in that bubble has been obvious. Seven percent of the members of the Class of 2008 were eligible for Pell Grants, designated for low-income students. For the class of 2027, the figure is 22 percent. Traditionally, it has not been the children of Locust Valley who lay down their squash racquets to upend the status quo, and now there are fewer of them.

In effect, the recent storm suggests the extent to which elite universities have been unprepared for the political and cultural changes that accompany a widening of the aperture. Recruiting students for whom the inequities of 21st-century capitalism have been experienced firsthand — rather than analyzed at a theoretical distance — has put undergraduates from widely different demographics in the intimate company of one another, broadening and sharpening the conversations on campus.

Comparing the reactions to the recent protests at Brown, Columbia and Princeton, it is hard not to wonder if there is a correlation between the particulars of institutional wealth and the willingness of administrators to engage with activists expressing rage over what they perceive as a university-funded genocide.

Brown, with an endowment of $6.6 billion, an enormous sum of money that is nevertheless the smallest in the Ivy League, managed to negotiate a deal with students that will allow them to make their case for divestment before trustees who will then hold a vote on whether or not to detach from Israeli interests. Columbia, whose endowment is more than twice that size, eventually called the police to make a mass arrest of protesters, but administrators first held meetings with students over the course of a week to hear them out. Princeton’s endowment stands at more than $33 billion.

“The university wants to characterize divestment as a fringe issue,” said Mr. Chmielewski, the striker. “We want to make it clear that there is a lot of support.”

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