Sit-ins and encampments are spreading across the US — what’s their origin?

Sit-ins and encampments are spreading across the US — what’s their origin?
People arrive for the George Washington University commencement ceremony at the National Mall on 19 May 2024 in Washington, DC. Student protests across university campuses have continued with walkouts occurring during commencement ceremonies as part of a coordinated effort to demand that institutions of higher education divest from companies and endowments with ties to Israel, amid Israel's continued siege on Gaza. (Photo: Kent Nishimura / Getty Images)

The sit-ins and encampments at universities to protest against Israel's actions in Gaza have deep historical and intellectual roots. These tools have become potent techniques for mobilising people — and social media and the internet are intensifying their impact.

Over the past several months, a wave of demonstrations, sit-ins and encampments on university campuses — especially in, but not limited to the US — has become the public face of protest against the Israeli reprisals and military actions in Gaza. Those have come in response to the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October that killed well over 1,000 people at a music festival or in their homes and took more than 200 hostages back into the tunnels in Gaza.

Such sit-ins, which began on one university campus, have spread widely, overlapping with the end of the US school year, producing sudden disruptions to planned university commencement ceremonies and provoking strong-armed police reactions on campuses.

University administrators have acceded to some of the demonstrators’ demands, such as promising to review their university endowment policies. The use of such tactics spread almost instantaneously, inspired by the internet/social media universe.

In the meantime, given the rising death toll in Gaza, a drumbeat of televised news coverage of the destruction in that territory and alarm that Israeli military efforts are thoroughly disproportionate to the initial Hamas incursion is merging with broader anger towards Israel as a nation, including its policies on the West Bank.

This has provoked international criticism of Israeli actions — and even questions about its legitimacy as a nation. (Undoubtedly, these criticisms will be underscored by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor’s intention to push for warrants of arrest of Israel’s and Hamas’ leaders.)

There is a growing realisation that the Netanyahu government has no cogent plan for ending the conflict, presumably except for continuing the fighting in Gaza until every Hamas fighter is killed and the remaining Israeli hostages are, somehow, located and freed.

Concurrently, these events are intermingling with increases in anti-Semitic public utterances and deeds in US life, along with criticism of US efforts supporting Israel. All this will undoubtedly affect the upcoming US election.

Where did the term, ‘sit-in’ come from?

As we consider all these events, questions about sit-ins should be considered as well. From where did the idea of a sit-in evolve? Is it different from other forms of protest action?

The very idea of public protest is deeply woven into the US’s founding myth and memory. Just one example: the “Boston Tea Party”, when public protests against British taxes designed to pay for the costs of supporting British troops stationed in the American colonies in the aftermath of Britain’s Seven Years’ War with France, led a mob of colonists to seize shipments of tea in Boston harbour and dump them into the sea.

Fifteen years later, public protests in Europe were central to changes in government. A mob in France, angry at the dissolute excesses of the French ancien régime and the growing shortages and price inflation of basic foodstuffs, seized the Bastille, an old prison holding a small number of prisoners, to set those prisoners free, thereby helping provoke a government response that set the French Revolution in motion.

Innumerable marches, demonstrations and other protests have taken place around the world thereafter, to overturn political leadership or force changes in the policies of a government. And, of course, there have been mutinies by members of military formations against their leaders.

Those protests seem different to some degree from the more precise use of targeted sit-ins and encampments as protests. To the extent that I have been able to track it, the first use of the term “sit-in” was at industrial action protests. It was used to describe a strike by employees refusing to leave a factory floor but doing no work, in 1936 in Detroit — an effort encouraged by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union, whose members were nicknamed “Wobblies”.

It was a union in the US that arose in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states — in the timber and lumber sectors in the former, and the mining sector in the latter. The Wobblies’ influence spread to the big industrial areas in the Midwest before the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the federation that later merged with the American Federation of Labor. The IWW has now largely faded into history, but the strategy lives on.

Sit-ins as a tool of the civil rights struggle

A memory of that first sit-in may well have been the inspiration for young civil rights activists in Chicago who carried out a successful sit-in at a Chicago restaurant in 1942, a venue that had refused service to a group of African Americans, despite their entering the restaurant with other would-be, white patrons.

Interestingly, the term “sit-in” may also have an element of crossover from live music. In that circumstance, a musician in the audience could be asked to join performers on stage to “sit in” with them. The earliest recorded usage of the term for musicians was in 1936.

By 1960, the term “sit-in” began to come into common usage, in tandem with the growing US civil rights movement. One important milestone in the idea of sit-ins came when civil rights pioneers in Greensboro, North Carolina, began their sit-ins at popular lunch counters of department stores like Woolworth (previously off-limits to African Americans throughout the South).

In February 1960, four African American college students entered a Woolworth in Greensboro and sat on the swivel chairs of the store’s lunch counter. The four young men remained in their seats until the store closed that first day, but, in the days that followed, they continued to return, and, soon enough, they were joined by more students. (Some were arrested and others were sometimes thoroughly humiliated as they sat there while ketchup and mustard were poured on their heads.)

These “sit-ins” seized the popular imagination and the idea spread to other southern cities, attracting the participation of many more students. These efforts coalesced into broader protest efforts, transforming the US civil rights struggle and turning it into a mass, popular movement.

Sit-ins and anti-Vietnam War protests

The civil rights movement made effective use of sit-ins as a technique for mobilising people in social action. Soon enough, students in many universities across the country picked up on the tactic for other protest actions in the 1960s. The escalating war in Vietnam — and the chances the military service draft would drag unwilling young men into the military and send them off to Vietnam — captured the attention of students.

Soon enough, the concept of the sit-in was morphing into a variety of expressions such as “teach-ins”, to advance support for opposition to the war, and even “lie-ins” or “die-ins” (using fake blood) as protest actions on the steps of government buildings. A variant of the phrase became the name of a popular weekly television show hosted by two stand-up comedians that poked fun at politicians — Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

By 1968, students in some schools like Columbia University  (where sit-ins and encampments were staged in this year’s protests) occupied campus buildings as protests, before the police were summoned to evict them. That year also saw protest sit-ins in Western European cities and Japan as well as at the University of Cape Town —  with the occupation of the Bremner building.

The following year, a sit-in at a building on Cornell University’s campus evolved out of protests about the university’s commitment to African American demands.

By 1970, in the US, sit-ins had become virtually ubiquitous on college campuses — although sometimes sit-ins and demonstrations merged. At my university, in that year, an anti-Vietnam War protest led to the occupation of a major state road that bisected the campus. That brought police and Maryland Army National Guard troops on to the campus to end the sit-in.

Those demonstrations eventually evolved into campus building occupations as well. (The writer ended up with a wound across the top of his skull requiring multiple stitches after a Maryland state trooper assaulted him with a riot truncheon during the turmoil.)

But as the Vietnam conflict wound down and US troop levels there declined, anti-war demonstrations receded.

Enter encampments

Encampments have had a somewhat different history. In mid-1932, during the Great Depression, 43,000 demonstrators, the “Bonus Army” — veterans of the US’s participation in World War 1 — and their families set up an encampment in Washington’s parks to back their demand for an early payment of their service bonuses whose bonus certificates were only due to be paid in 1945. Many of those participants had been out of work since the beginning of the nation’s economic collapse.

By late July 1932, the attorney-general in the Herbert Hoover administration ordered the veterans and their supporters to be removed from US government property. When the city’s police were unable to enforce this order, the president ordered the army to accomplish the task. Infantry, cavalry and a detachment of tanks, all under the command of Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, forcibly cleared the encampment and burned the people’s shelters and belongings.

The bonus was never paid. But, a second, smaller encampment the following year did result in a government offer to the veterans by the newly elected president, Franklin Roosevelt, for employment in the newly created Civilian Conservation Corps.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Ralph Abernathy introduces Jesse Jackson 22 May 1968 as the manager of Resurrection City — the encampment near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, where most participants in the Poor Peoples’ Campaign camped. (Photo: Flickr)

Resurrection City

Thirty-five years later, the same National Mall became the site of another encampment. In 1967, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr articulated his vision for “The Poor People’s Campaign,” his second protest effort in Washington, DC, as a follow-up to the monumental 1963 March on Washington.

King wrote about his intentions, “This will be no mere one-day march in Washington, but a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive active is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.”

Such an effort drew on the ideas and insights of a line of thinkers who had developed the concept of non-violent resistance/civil disobedience/passive resistance, such as Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and then, more recently, King.

In addition, there were the contributions of the Highlander School in Tennessee, a facility that had trained two generations of community organisers and civic action advocates. There was also the influence of the thinker/activist Saul Alinsky who, some years later, in his book Rules for Radicals formalised his activist philosophy as: Protest; then negotiate; then compromise; then repeat as needed.

Back in 1967, King’s plan called for a massive mobilisation of people to push the government into further action beyond the recently passed Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and the War on Poverty legislation, given the continuing gap in economic circumstances.

King asked native American, Mexican-American and poor white Appalachian populations, along with other supporters, to join in a grand coalition in an encampment on the National Mall in May 1968. The campaign would “demand federal funding for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, anti-poverty programmes and housing for the poor”.

King did not live to see this encampment happen as he was assassinated on 4 May 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Then, despite major outbreaks of rioting and looting in major US cities, including Washington, thousands of people did gather for the encampment, now dubbed “Resurrection City”. Many stayed there for a month and a half — until the demonstration permit expired.

One participant, Lenneal Henderson, then a student at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote about his experiences in the Smithsonian Magazine. 

“I was there all 42 days, and it rained 29 of them. It got to be a muddy mess after a while. And with such basic accommodations, tensions are inevitable. Sometimes there were fights and conflicts between and among people. But it was an incredible experience, almost indescribable,” Henderson wrote.

“While we were all in a kind of depressed state about the assassinations of King and RFK, we were trying to keep our spirits up, and keep focused on King’s ideals of humanitarian issues, the elimination of poverty and freedom. It was exciting to be part of something that potentially, at least, could make a difference in the lives of so many people who were in poverty around the country.”

I visited the encampment on behalf of a university magazine and found things pretty much the way Henderson described them. Chaotic, energised for change, but muddy and wet.

Ultimately, the shutdown of Resurrection City’s encampment was an unceremonious one. Some Southern congressmen demanded an end to the encampment and the Washington, DC, police carried out the task (the Congress had significant authority over the running of the city and its budget). They removed the people who were there and arrested almost 300, including one of its leaders, the Rev Ralph Abernathy, who had taken over the running of the encampment following King’s death. The legislative goals, however, remained largely unfulfilled.

A Peking citizen stands passively in front of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in this 5 June 1989 file photo taken during the crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising. (Photo: Arthur Tsang Deng)

The Chinese model

Perhaps the most compelling example of an encampment as a political tool was not in the US but in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. By the spring of 1989, there were growing calls by Chinese university students and others for serious political and economic reforms in China’s governance. This was taking on an added impetus, especially since during the previous decade the country had undergone sustained economic growth and political liberalisation. More Chinese were gaining exposure to those dangerous foreign ideas and standards of living.

While the economic growth had been extraordinary, there was also rising inflation and growing government corruption. Student-led demonstrations in 1986 and ’87 were leading hard-line senior officials to push for the suppression of what was termed “bourgeois liberalism”.

The death of the by-now-disgraced senior figure Hu Yaobang, one of the leading promoters of greater openness, had turned him into a kind of martyr for liberalisation. As a result, on 22 April 1989, just as Hu’s funeral was occurring, thousands of students gathered in Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square to demand further reforms. Over the next several weeks, crowds kept gathering, and some camped there, with demands for political, social, and economic reforms.

The Chinese government initially only issued stern warnings, even as demonstrations began in other cities as well, but, coincidentally, a large contingent of international media was in Beijing for Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s upcoming visit to China. By the time that visit took place, perhaps a million people had gathered in Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese government leadership was divided on how to respond, and the demonstrations and encampment pitted Zhao Ziyang (Hu’s successor as party general secretary) against Li Peng. Li’s hardliners ultimately prevailed inside government circles as they declared martial law and stationed the army at strategic points around the city.

Initial attempts by troops to reach Tiananmen Square were thwarted when ordinary citizens blocked their way. Meanwhile, protesters in the encampment positioned themselves around a large plaster statue they had constructed, calling it the “Goddess of Democracy” — with a shape echoing the Statue of Liberty.

On 3 June, tanks and troops moved towards Tiananmen Square, opening fire on those who tried to block their way. Eventually, the square was cleared and the military moved to quash the other demonstrations across the nation.

On 4 June, even though the area had been cleared of protesters, sporadic shootings continued through the day. The iconic image of quelling the demonstrations became the solitary man standing in the path of a line of tanks, temporarily halting them on the square. He was never identified or found.

In the aftermath, thousands of Chinese were arrested and some executed. The number of fatalities has never been authoritatively determined, but unconfirmed estimates are it was in the thousands.

In contemporary China, the impact of this massive protest movement, the encampment and the subsequent, violent repression have been the subject of government efforts to prevent any mention of the events, including banning any public commemorations of the events.

A final word…

One key lesson to be drawn from this survey of sit-ins, protests and encampments is that — at least until this year’s events — most such efforts took place before the advent of the internet and, most especially, the now, near-universal penetration of social media. Current efforts about the situation in Gaza are using social media to inform others and help encourage similar efforts in other locations.

Based on how widely and quickly the anti-Israel protests, sit-ins and encampments have spread, when — not, if — another wave of popular protest begins, social media and online news will distribute the idea even more quickly and, seemingly, without formal, centralised direction. One easy prediction we can make is that such things will be increasingly hard for governments to control or prevent. DM


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  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    A few questions / observations: 1) The sit-ins that birthed this phenomenon (anti-Vietnam) were notable for their pro-Peace, anti-War messages, correct? 2) Chinese and Iranian (SA closest allies) sit-ins were dealt with by their states / security forces how, remind me? 3) When college kids are threatening Jewish students, with strong antisemitic undercurrents to these protests (“There is only one solution – Intifada Revolution”, “From the river to the Sea”, “We don’t want two states – we want all of it”), with their kaffiyeh masked faces, Hamas and Hezbollah flags and headbands (to be worn in preparation of a martyrs death BTW) – should we take them seriously (at their word, that they want to wipe out all Jews), or are they just being kids?

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Well said. I am not Jewish but these students, and others are best ignored…. if that is possible. Identify them, publish them and see what sort of response they will get from the other Communities

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    I’d say it is a mixture of TikTok/Reddit type influencing where a trend quickly develops (meme stocks) and students who see a chance to replicate the mythical 1968 and 1975 protests they have read about but missed out on. There is no rational explanation why this issue has SUDDENLY after 7 months bloomed nor why it is so obsessed about over and above other alleged human rights abuses. And of course there are different levels of underlying anti semitism, call it Jew resentment or Jewphobia. Sort of “we’re fed up with hearing about Jews in business,Science and IT, here’s a chance to stick it to them”. And yes there are Jewish protesters but they either don’t get it or there is more choice of you want to be part of the crowd.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    I’d say it is a mixture of TikTok/Reddit type influencing where a trend quickly develops (meme stocks) and students who see a chance to replicate the mythical 1968 and 1975 protests they have read about but missed out on. There is no rational explanation why this issue has SUDDENLY after 7 months bloomed nor why it is so obsessed about over and above other alleged human rights abuses. And of course there are different levels of underlying anti semitism, call it Jew resentment or Jewphobia. Sort of “we’re fed up with hearing about Jews in business,Science and IT, here’s a chance to stick it to them”. And yes there are Jewish protesters but they either don’t get it or there is more choice of you want to be part of the crowd.

    • Peter Sadie says:

      Can you not consider that these students might actually be concerned by the loss of civilian life, based on the destructive visuals we see of Gaza daily; That they have a natural empathy when one imagines this could be your family and children suffering? This has nothing to do with anti-semitism and everything to do with being a compassionate human being.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Never been on TikTok, Reddit or others you mention but it does seem as if these Students need something else in life, including a paying job!

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