EXPLAINER

After police crackdown, what’s next for Columbia’s Gaza protesters?

The NYPD arrested around 300 college protesters from Columbia and CUNY after Hamilton Hall was occupied and renamed “Hind Hall”.

Video Duration 01 minutes 24 seconds 01:24By Al Jazeera StaffPublished On 1 May 20241 May 2024

On Tuesday night, hundreds of New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers with riot shields and zip ties entered the Columbia University campus and arrested more than 280 protesters who had occupied Hamilton Hall, a key academic and administrative building, a day earlier. The police separately also arrested student protesters at City College of New York (CUNY).

The police crackdown marked the latest escalation in tensions between the authorities and pro-Palestine college protesters at demonstrations that have exploded across university campuses in the United States, and have also spread to other parts of the world.

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The protesters are demanding an end to Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 people since October 7, and are calling on their universities to sever ties with companies and institutions that have links to Israel. At the heart of these student protests is Columbia, where students set up a days-long encampment before occupying Hamilton Hall, and setting off the pattern of global protests.

What happened at Columbia University and CUNY?

On April 17, students at New York’s Columbia University set up the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on campus to protest against Columbia’s response to Israel’s war on Gaza. The students want Columbia to divest – withdraw their investments – from companies that do business with Israel and cut academic ties with Israeli universities.

On Monday, the president of Columbia University, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, released a statement asserting that Columbia would “not divest from Israel”. Columbia gave students a deadline of 2pm (18:00 GMT) on Monday to dismantle the encampments of about 120 tents.

The protest group, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, posted a statement on X about four hours before the 2pm deadline, saying that the protesters had informed the university they were prepared to “escalate their direct actions if Columbia does not adopt basic standards of conduct for negotiations”.

In the early morning of Tuesday, protesters occupied the university’s Hamilton Hall in a move reminiscent of the protests in 1968 against the Vietnam war, and protests in 1985, when students demanded that Columbia divest from companies with financial interests in apartheid South Africa.

During the 1985 protests, students renamed Hamilton Hall “Mandela Hall” after the then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. This time, students renamed the building “Hind’s Hall” after Hind Rajab, a six-year-old girl killed in Gaza on January.

[Al Jazeera]

On Tuesday, Columbia’s president, Shafik, wrote a letter to the NYPD deputy commissioner, which has been published on Columbia’s website. In the letter, Shafik alleged that the individuals spearheading the Hamilton Hall occupation were not affiliated with Columbia despite students being present.

She requested the NYPD help clear out the people from both Hamilton Hall and the encampments, asking the police to stay on campus until May 17 to ensure encampments are not re-established.

The NYPD entered Columbia’s campus shortly after 9pm on Tuesday (01:00 GMT on Wednesday) to clear the encampments and some officers also approached Hamilton Hall.

On Wednesday, Shafik released a new statement in which she acknowledged Columbia’s position at the centre of iconic protests against the Vietnam war and apartheid in South Africa, but defended her decision to call in the police to disperse the protesters. “Students and outside activists breaking Hamilton Hall doors, mistreating our Public Safety officers and maintenance staff, and damaging property are acts of destruction, not political speech,” she said.

“Many students have also felt uncomfortable and unwelcome because of the disruption and antisemitic comments made by some individuals, especially in the protests that have persistently mobilized outside our gates.”

The police also cracked down on the encampment at CUNY at the request of that institution’s president’s request, arresting students and faculty, according to a statement posted by CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment on X on Wednesday.

In all, the NYPD took nearly 300 people into custody on Tuesday night from Columbia and CUNY, New York City mayor Eric Adams said during a news briefing on Wednesday.

Earlier, on April 18, New York police arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters from Columbia on trespassing charges.

Where were the protesters on the Columbia campus?

Arrests were made at Hamilton Hall, an administrative building on Columbia’s Morningside Campus.

Students had also been camped on the West Lawn of the Morningside Campus since April 17. However, a student organiser told Al Jazeera that the group which had occupied the hall was a different group than the one that had established a camp on the campus lawn.

(Al Jazeera)

What are students demanding?

The student protesters had pledged to remain inside “Hind’s Hall” until their three demands had been met: divestment from Israel, transparency about the university’s investments and amnesty from any disciplinary measures for the protesting students.

How have protesters reacted to the arrests?

On Wednesday, the activist group, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), said it condemned the New York Police Department’s crackdown at Columbia and at the City College of New York.

“It couldn’t be clearer: These students were brutalised to protect Columbia University and CCNY’s investments in Israeli apartheid,” the group said. “It will forever be a stain on Columbia that the administration called riot police on its own student body rather than divest from the brutality of war and occupation.”

Stefanie Fox, the group’s executive director, said, “America is in the business of war-making across the world, and the militarisation of US police forces is a direct result. The US has funded and supported the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians for decades, with private institutions across the country profiting from the same.”

She said that Columbia was on the “wrong side of history once again” as it was “in its oppression of the student anti-war movement of 1968, and wrong again in its oppression of the student movement against South African apartheid in 1985”.

Students from encampments throughout the US have also expressed solidarity with the protesting students at Columbia.

A student from the University of Chicago posted a picture on X on Wednesday of protesters at the institution’s encampment huddling around a loudspeaker to hear live coverage of the arrests from Hamilton Hall by Columbia’s student-run radio station, WKCR.

What is the current situation?

Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), the coalition that organised the encampments, posted an Instagram story summing up the current situation at NYPD headquarters, One Police Plaza (1PP).

CUAD claimed that no press, including Columbia’s own student-run radio station WKCR, had been allowed inside Hamilton Hall. It also added that Emergency Medical Services had treated arrested students on site for injuries, which had not happened the last time students were arrested on April 18. “Clearly more brutal arrests,” the story read.

CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment also posted on X that the CUNY students arrested were suffering from injuries sustained during the arrest, calling for jail support at 1PP.

URGENT: WE STILL NEED FOLKS TO COME TO ONE POLICE PLAZA FOR JAIL SUPPORT.

Many of our comrades are suffering injuries from the police brutality last night and we need folks to come through and support them at One Police Plaza

— CUNY GAZA Solidarity Encampment (@cunygse) May 1, 2024

What happens next?

While the student groups behind the Columbia protest have not yet outlined their next steps, they have previously made clear that they intend to keep their movement alive until the university agrees to their demand to divest from firms with ties to Israel.

Columbia, in turn, has made it clear that it has no plans to accept those demands. The university is days away from its annual commencement, when graduating students receive their degrees. It is unclear whether that event will proceed as planned, or whether protesters might use the occasion to make a statement.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, senior NYPD officials held a media briefing during which they justified their actions.

During the briefing, NYPD Department Chief Jeffrey B Maddrey said that the police would carry out an assessment of the Columbia campus to “see what resources to put there”, adding that campus security is their top priority.

NYPD officials reasserted claims that external individuals were involved in the Hamilton Hall occupation.

Deputy Commissioner Tarik Sheppard told MSNBC on Wednesday that objects such as bike lock chains were used to secure every door at the Hamilton Hall, and said, “This is not what students bring to school. This is what professionals bring to campuses and universities,” while showing a chain to the camera.

Many X users pointed out that the chain and other objects resembled common bike locks that Columbia provides as part of University Public Safety Crime Prevention.

the NYPD, aided by cable news media, is trying to further push the “outside agitator” narrative at Columbia

the evidence?

a common bike lock and chain

“this is not what students bring to school. this is what professionals bring to campuses and universities.” https://t.co/yxQZHjKYrv

— Matt Binder (@MattBinder) May 1, 2024

Did UCLA also see violence on Wednesday night?

Overnight on Wednesday, a masked pro-Israel mob attacked an encampment across the country, at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).

The mob, carrying Israeli flags, assaulted students with pepper spray, sticks, stones and metal fencing.

While the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) eventually intervened, witnesses said they initially stood by and only intervened after almost four hours of the attacks.

How have other universities managed the protests?

Protests and encampments are continuing on more than 20 campuses in the US including New York University, Yale and Harvard. These protests have also experienced police crackdowns and violence.

More than 1,200 students have been arrested throughout the US during campus protests and encampments opposing the Gaza war.

An NYU spokesperson has also said that NYU does not plan to divest.

However, on Tuesday evening, Brown University leadership and protesting students came to an agreement that the students will clear the encampments that have been in place since April 24 on the condition that the Corporation, Brown’s highest governing body, will vote on divestment from companies affiliated with Israel during a meeting in October.

Source: Al Jazeera