Five student movements to remember

4 June 2024 Amaya Castro Williams –

Berkeley students protest for free speech on campus in 1964

From the 1960s revolts to today’s Gaza solidarity encampments, students have long been at the forefront of radical struggles. Students have shut down campuses, helped to bring down dictators and sparked general strikes. Their militancy has inspired others to join campaigns against war, racism and political repression. There is much that the student activists of today can learn from the victories and defeats of the movements of the past.

1. Brazil’s “student spring”

“My first question is: who owns the school? To whom does it belong? I believe you already know the answer.” So began 16-year-old Ana Júlia Ribeiro’s address to the Paraná state legislative assembly in 2016. As she spoke, students were occupying hundreds of schools across Brazil.

The occupations began in September 2015 after the governor of São Paulo announced a plan to close nearly 100 public schools. Speaking to openDemocracy, a student involved in the first occupation recalled, “A student found a news story about the Penguins’ Revolution in Chile. Nobody knew what an occupation was. So we learned what occupying meant and we decided to go ahead and do it”.

Years of attacks on education and other social services meant that wherever there were students, there was discontent. Occupations sprang up to challenge forced closures, mergers, corruption, sexist school administrators and more. The occupations started strongly but eventually receded.

In September 2016, another round of attacks on public education brought them back. The first attack proposed sweeping changes to the curriculum. The second proposed an amendment to the constitution that would freeze public expenses for twenty years. The third, tabled by the far right, was the “School Without Parties” law, which sought to persecute teachers for “ideological indoctrinations” and ban any “Marxist” influence in schools.

This time, the response was even larger. According to the Brazilian Union of Secondary School Students, more than 1,000 high schools were occupied. Students started to figure out how to run the schools for themselves—cooking, cleaning, keeping watch and holding their own lessons. In crowded classrooms, at student conferences and on the streets, the students debated the direction of the struggle. The 2019 documentary about the movement, Your Turn, shows autonomists, centrists, revolutionaries, anarchists and social democrats debating horizontal organising, how to fight sexism, the police and what public education should look like.

In the end, the occupations didn’t break the power of the right-wing government. But the students held out against brutal police repression and attacks from the organised right, transforming themselves in the process.

As Ana Julia said: “A week of occupations taught us more about politics and citizenship than the years we will spend inside classrooms”.

2. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964 helped kick off a wave of student activism that would last well into the 1970s. The University of California Berkeley administration banned any activities related to “off-campus political and social action”, meaning that student activists were not allowed to organise information stalls, hold meetings or raise any funds.

The attack was particularly aimed at Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) activists, who, inspired by Black civil rights student activists in the South, had been organising in San Francisco’s Bay Area against the racist hiring practices of local businesses.

Three days after the ban was announced, police arrested a CORE activist who had set up a stall. Students surrounded the cop car, beginning a sit-in that lasted 36 hours. Joel Geier, a socialist and leading activist in the free speech movement, recalled in an article for Jacobin magazine: “Within a few hours, three thousand people had joined the sit-down protest. The roof of the patrol car was transformed into a podium, a public platform upon which anybody could climb up and speak to the crowd. It was democracy in action, the living opposite of university police repression”.

The Free Speech Movement had begun.

In the following months, the campus left produced countless leaflets, newspapers and pamphlets, and held meetings, rallies and sit-ins. Through the Free Speech Movement, radicals and revolutionaries found a sizeable audience amongst the student body.

By early December, the movement had escalated into a student strike. “When I looked up, a few dozen people were picketing—but within minutes, like a tidal wave, hundreds had joined the picket line. In less than an hour, our plan was working. We were actually shutting the university down”, Geier recalled. The various unions that represented campus workers agreed to support the student strike, and for the week, they refused to cross the student pickets.

The radicalism of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement set the pace for the student movement across the country. The tactics it used became the touchstone for many other campuses. It proved to a generation that the liberal values espoused by university administrations and Democratic Party politicians alike were utterly bankrupt. And it showed that masses of students could be won to radical politics and throw themselves into the fight against capitalism.

3. The Soweto uprising

The murder of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson by the South African police marked a turning point in the movement against South African apartheid. Pieterson, alongside 22 other students, was killed when the police opened fire on a demonstration of 20,000 Soweto high schoolers on 16 June 1976. Interviewed in January 1977, Tebello Motapanyane, the secretary-general of the South African Students’ Movement, explained that students had walked out to protest the introduction of compulsory Afrikaans language in schools. After being attacked by police, they rioted, setting buildings ablaze across the townships.

Protests broke out across the country in solidarity with the Soweto students, and in protest at apartheid itself. On 18 June, police fired on a demonstration of students and workers in Alexandra, killing four demonstrators. The government defended the police, and the protests continued.

From 23 to 25 August, Soweto was paralysed by a general strike. The students turned their attention to the task of involving as many workers as possible in the next one.

“The SSRC had distributed leaflets beforehand in Zulu, Sotho and English throughout Soweto, calling upon the workers to stay at home on the 13th to the 15th of September”, recorded historian Archie Mafeje in his 1978 article “Soweto and Its Aftermath”. “The strike turned out to be a massive demonstration of solidarity of the oppressed, even greater than the previous one. Approximately, half a million workers in the Reef responded. Not only that, it also received echoes from as far afield as Cape Town, where masses of Coloured as well as African workers came out in support of Soweto.”

The uprising in Soweto marked a new stage of the struggle against apartheid. Eventually, Black workers brought down the apartheid system. The Soweto students helped light the spark of that struggle.

4. Indonesia’s reformasi total

In 1998, Suharto, the hated Indonesian dictator, was felled by a mass movement of students and workers. General Suharto had come to power in 1965 in a vicious military coup that slaughtered more than 400,000 communists and left-wing activists, according to the International People’s Tribunal investigation on Crimes against Humanity, Indonesia 1965.

Max Lane’s history of Indonesia, Unfinished Nation, tells the story of the revolt, which began in 1996. Facing heavy police repression, thousands braved the streets to protest the dictator. When an economic crisis hit in 1997, it deepened the political crisis caused by the protests.

Students made the first decisive move, organising campus protests demanding price caps on basic goods. At the beginning of May 1998, the government announced an increase in the price of electricity and fuel. The demonstrations escalated in response.

At the University of Trisakti in Jakarta, the military shot at a demonstration, killing four students. Across Jakarta, students broke out in riots. “Students and kampung dwellers … took over streets and held open forums”, describes Lane. “Local parliamentary buildings, governor’s offices and other official buildings were occupied. In some cities, students took over the state radio stations and made their own broadcasts. They even attacked military outposts.”

On 19 May, students began an occupation outside the Indonesian parliament demanding Suharto step down. The next day, mass demonstrations took place across the country in support of the occupation. The day after that, Suharto resigned.

But the movement was not over. The masses were fighting for reformasi total (complete reform)—any compromise with the figures of the old regime was unacceptable.

In November, a special parliamentary session met to plan the transition to democracy. Students mobilised across the country. The military met their demonstrations with knives, spears, rifles and tear gas. In the urban centres, workers and the poor came to the students’ defence. They built barricades, made Molotov cocktails and threw rocks at the military. After beating back the military, the students surged forward and occupied the parliamentary compound for several hours.

Eventually, the forces of moderation, who argued for a “slower” transition to democracy, won out. The street movement was disorganised and unable to challenge the power of the moderate political parties.

But the bravery of the students sparked a mass movement that brought down a despised dictator and revived radical politics in a country where the slaughter of the left was a living memory.

5. The French May

At the beginning of 1968, France was a capitalist success story. Following World War Two, it experienced almost uninterrupted economic growth, and little in the way of mass protest. Society seemed stable, and many, including on the left, had written off the potential for any radical upsurge. In May, all this shattered.

In The Fire Last Time, British Marxist Chris Harman describes the events that began the French May. On the evening of 10 May, students held a demonstration in Paris’ Latin Quarter. The police, who had been brought in by the French government to forcibly close the Sorbonne university seven days earlier, fearing the anti-Vietnam War protests that had engulfed the campus, descended on the protest. But the students were prepared. They constructed barricades out of torn-up cobblestones and items tossed to them by local residents, and fought the police long into the night. By morning, the verdict was unanimous. The students had won.

The battle was broadcast live on radio. Millions of workers listened as the students pushed back the police. Under pressure from their members, many of whom were inspired by the students, the two main trade union federations, the CGT (dominated by the Stalinist Communist Party) and CFDT, called a general strike for 13 May. Nearly a million workers joined.

What had started as a one-day action developed into an indefinite strike. Workers pushed back against the conservatism of their trade union officials and occupied their factories. The fraternisation between student and worker militants led to a flourishing of political discussion.

In his memoir about 1968, L’aubepine de mai, Francois Le Madec, a worker, recounted the atmosphere of the first occupation at Sud Aviation, a factory outside of the western city of Nantes: “Around the shelters, in the cold night, we eat, we drink fraternally, and above all we discuss. But about what! If not the revolt, the revolution, the worker-student relations, the necessity to unite the struggles into one struggle, of the free university, of student power, of workers’ power”.

Luckily for French capitalism, and unluckily for the student and workers’ movement, the moderates in the CGT were more frightened by the possibility of revolution than defeat. Without an organised political force that could match the size and weight of the Communist Party, the occupation movement was wound up by the promise of a national election.

Though the French May was over, students and workers around the world took up the mantle of their French comrades. In the following years, struggles broke out from Italy to Mexico. The veneer of a stable postwar compromise was shattered, and the idea that students and workers could change the world was back with a vengeance.