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DMV students strike against U.S. support for Israel

Highlanders participate in Washington, D.C. protest led by high schoolers
Zakareya Hamed
The Washington Monument appears in the horizon as students march towards the White House in solidarity with Gaza.

On May 24, high school students from various DC, Maryland and Virginia (DMV) schools marched on the nation’s capital to show support for Palestine in the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. The strike—which many McLean and FCPS students participated in—was organized by a network of Palestinian-American student groups in the DMV.

According to organizers, roughly 150 to 170 protesters were present. Protesters gathered in McPherson Square at 11 a.m. before walking to Lafayette Square in front of the White House. Student organizers sought to amplify their voices by taking advantage of their proximity to the nation’s capital. Ten protesters were from McLean High School.

“No one in the world has access to the borders of the White House and DC the same way us students in Virginia and Maryland do,” junior Jude El-Hadi said. “Unlike other [protesters], we don’t need to hop on a flight to make our point to government officials.”

It’s important to show that we are not accepting what is happening in silence and that we are ready for change.”

— junior Karine Khayo

Organizers hoped their protest would extend high school participation in the movement for Palestinian liberation.

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“A ceasefire in Palestine would be amazing, but [we understand that] it’s a little bit unrealistic from a single protest today,” said FCPS junior Israa, one of the strike organizers. “Today’s protest is mostly just to involve us as high schoolers in the greater liberation movement. You see all these big organizations all run by older adults… Yes, we’re not part of that yet, but we do have the responsibility to disrupt and join that greater movement.”

Protesters focused on the role of students in political activism, reflecting the uniqueness of a high school student-led protest amidst the numerous adult-led strikes across the country. Students chanted improvised slogans, including “Biden, Biden, you’re a coward” and “the students have all the power.” Another chant to “free Palestine within [their] lifetime[s]” also displayed their commitment to including the younger generations in their movement.

“Many people say, ‘Why are high schoolers worrying about such problems at this age?’ But I question why people don’t care as much at such young ages when they see people our age being killed on the other side of the world,” junior Karine Khayo said.

The crowd levied accusations against President Joe Biden, claiming he was enabling and funding genocide in Gaza. Strike organizers called for “shutting down” institutions that they argued were complicit in aiding Israel.

“The fact that this protest was during school hours made it a very powerful one,” Khayo said. “I sent my teachers an email about my absence to let them know I am partaking in this protest and that I can no longer remain complicit in the genocide. This was important because disruption of daily life is necessary in order to attract attention from authority figures.”

Among other methods, organizers recruited students through DMV schools’ Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) .

Having people who are definitely not supporting your goals orbit and record you can incite cowardice, but we knew we [had] an end goal and we knew what we were fighting for.”

— junior Jude El-Hadi

“I mostly just reached out to the other MSAs in my area and was like, ‘Hey, how do you feel about [joining] this? What do you think of sending a [group] of students?’ Most of them were pretty enthusiastic,” Israa said.

Many of the McLean student attendees had helped to organize the school’s pro-Palestine walkout in Oct. 2023.

“This protest was important, maybe even more so than the one we started at McLean High School because its location attracted more attention,” Khayo said.

At the same time, the openness of the protest’s location brought greater risks for protesters, who feared they could be doxxed online, expelled from school, rejected from colleges and blacklisted from jobs.

“I felt empowered and supported, but simultaneously fearful of everything we needed to put on the line in order to stand for what we believe in,” El-Hadi said. “Having people who are definitely not supporting your goals orbit and record you can incite cowardice, but we knew we [had] an end goal and we knew what we were fighting for.”

Protesters issued grievances regarding American support for Israel. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Israel receives 3.3 billion dollars in U.S. foreign aid every year, amounting to 300 billion dollars total, adjusted for inflation. On May 16, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed the Israel Security Supplemental Appropriations Act, which reaffirmed Israel’s ‘right to self-defense’ and pledged to continue arms deliveries that were paused by the Biden administration.

“Our main [issue] is the unconditional military funding towards the genocide and Israel,” Israa said. “[It is] a big problem for us students [because] we’re entering college. We are going to end up taking student loans that will take decades for us to pay off. In DC, homeless encampments have been cleared, and we have been told our entire lives that the homeless crisis is too expensive of a problem to fix. But somehow, the U.S. finds billions of dollars for genocide.”

At around midday, the protesters marched to Lafayette Square, across the North Lawn of the White House. However, they were denied access to Pennsylvania Avenue, the street directly in front of the White House. The Secret Service blocked the street for additional security while the President of Kenya was visiting at the time. As a result, the protest occurred behind an erected steel barrier within Lafeyette Square.

High school students march before the White House in D.C. to protest U.S. funding of Israel and to demand a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. (Video courtesy of Aaron Stark and Alan Tang)

As protesters sat in front of the White House to hear from guest speakers, McLean students were approached by a man who opposed the protest. In response to pro-Palestinian protests across college campuses and public spaces, pro-Israelis have reacted unfavorably to what they viewed as threatening provocations.

“From the river to sea? So you want me to die?” the man said. “Do you want to kill me?”

The man was guided away from the students by a volunteer security marshal positioned by the strike organizers.

“[The man] was explaining how he believes there is no oppression of Arabs in Israel. He told me to get educated and that I was ignorant, which is fine,” volunteer Sophia Geiger said. “I’d rather he say that to me than to high school students. It’s embarrassing that an old man would be yelling at and approaching random students because they have differing opinions.”

Students at the protest were in universal agreement that the crisis in Gaza needed to be addressed as quickly as possible.

“It’s especially important for others our age to do as much as they can,” Khayo said. “Especially in the DMV, where we are so close to the White House, it’s important to show that we are not accepting what is happening in silence and that we are ready for change.”

This story was originally published on The Highlander on May 25, 2024.