top of page


925 Silver Collection

Anti-War Student Protests Then and Now By Liz Goldner

Maya Lin, “Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial,” 1982, Washington D.C. Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.

For those of us who witnessed the anti-war protests of the 1960s and 70s, the dramatic images of students protesting the Israel-Hamas war today evoke those scenes from the past.

Numerous articles in the media have documented the similarities and differences between protests from the two eras. Similarities include picketing and barricading buildings by the students and demands to have their universities divest from war-related industries, and blowback from donors, corporations and politicians for the demonstrators to abandon their anti-war efforts. A Washington Post article from May 16th explains: “A group of billionaires and business titans working to shape U.S. public opinion of the war in Gaza privately pressed New York City’s mayor last month to send police to disperse pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University.”

Another similarity is that protests in both eras tended to escalate after the police broke them up. Indeed as centers that teach students to think critically about public issues, universities often and rightfully become breeding grounds for political activism.

Judy Baca, “La Memoria de la Tierra: UCLA” (detail), 2022 mural at UCLA Student Union, Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Associated Student UCLA.

There are also key differences between the past and present. Protests today are smaller in size, but as they are ongoing, this situation may change. And protests face faster containment by the police, with less probability of having them help end the unjust war, than did those of their predecessors, as the American power elite challenges their demands through misrepresentations, surveillance, attacks, the media, and political action. On May 15, USA Today editorialized, “… as campus authorities react swiftly, citing safety concerns and calling in police to break up encampments, it's unclear if or how the current protests will influence the Israel-Hamas war.”

Another major difference is that demonstrators of the 1960s were reacting in part to their own government sending young draftees, themselves or their friends, off to the Vietnam War. While many of the returning veterans became protestors, demonstrators today have little to no fear of being sent to war.

Damon D’Amato, “Ron Kovic,” 2007, photograph. Courtesy © Damon D’Amato.

One prominent anti-war protestor of the past was Ron Kovick, who was paralyzed in the Vietnam War. His compassionate book about that experience, “Born on the Fourth of July,” was made into a film of the same name starring Tom Cruise. He became a well-known peace activist, gave many speeches, and was arrested for his anti-war activities 12 times. In an introduction to his book, he wrote, "I wanted people to know what it really meant to be in a war, to be shot and wounded, to be fighting for my life on the intensive care ward, not the myth we had grown up believing.”

Another protestor was Gerry Fisher, whose Vietnam War experiences, its consequences on his life and subsequent anti-war protesting activities were unique to that era, and different from the experiences of most student protestors today.

In 1965, Fisher was preparing to attend Juilliard to study piano, conducting and composing. But before leaving for New York, he was drafted into the army. He spent 11 months in Vietnam before being injured. “I saw friends get torn apart and die, and I began reading confidential material about reasons for waging the war, which were untrue,” he explains. “We had liars running the government, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who later apologized for directing the war, and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles.”

Posters on lawn at Columbia University during pro-Palestinian protests, April 2024. Courtesy of Hyperallergic.

In Vietnam, Fisher was blown backwards into a tree by a mine — set off by a platoon sergeant who was killed by it — resulting in severe spine injuries. He was released from the army months later, and was diagnosed as 100 percent disabled with combat PTSD, and with the effects of Agent Orange, and he has since had multiple bouts of encephalitis from a parasitic infection.

Returning home, Fisher spent eight more months in the army, then enrolled at Cal State Long Beach, where he studied Political Behavior to learn why our government “was so fucked up.” By then, his Vietnam experience had destroyed his lifelong passion for music, which had been “blown out of him.”

Fisher became an ardent anti-war protestor, based on his wartime experiences (which few protestors have today). He and fellow demonstrators not only “shut the school down,” he gave speeches about the war, often to large audiences at Chambers of Commerce, City Councils and business organizations, including the Lions and Optimists Clubs.

Tatyana Fazlailzaheh, “Stop Telling Women to Smile,” 2019, public art installation.
Courtesy of DOT ARTS, Harlem, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

Fisher’s powerful speeches were based on having lived through a war, and his ability to convey through personal experience the war’s stark immorality. “Fifty-eight thousand Americans were killed in Vietnam and many others had serious injuries that affected them throughout their lifetimes,” he explains. “Virtually every veteran who served there had a long list of ailments, including many that caused their early deaths.”

Vietnam provided veterans with direct knowledge of the violence and horrors of war, provoking many to protest fervently. Their passion also touched those who saw and heard them, perhaps helping to end the war.

Yet contrary to our country’s change of heart about the Vietnam War, the American power elite today continues to propagandize the Israel-Hamas war. An example is the New York Times report on May 16: “The Biden administration has told Congress that it intends to move forward with a plan for the United States to sell more than $1 billion in new weapons to Israel.” These actions make real change a long shot, as does the lack of serious consideration of the students’ efforts, and reveal yet another difference between the experiences of protestors past and present.

Wafa Hourani, “Qalandia 2087,” 2009, mixed media installation in six parts with sound, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Nadour, an online collection of Arab visual art.

These events are occurring as protests are held internationally, well beyond U.S. college campuses. NBC News wrote on May 14, “Protests around the world commemorate the 76th anniversary of the Nakba and call for a cease-fire in Gaza. Demonstrators in the U.S., the U.K., the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland were seen marching with Palestinian flags …” In May, 1948, Israel Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion established the State of Israel, as 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their land, property and political rights. The Palestinians call that dispossession, then and continuing, the Nakba, or catastrophe in Arabic.

Fisher later attended law school and the London School of Economics for a post-doc in international law. He practiced as a maritime lawyer, enabling him to travel all over the world, as his wartime experiences made support for his country’s government problematic. He continues to battle the demons that have haunted him since Vietnam. And he fights injustices when they cross his path.

Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 
Liz Goldner’s Website

bottom of page