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No 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.

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