Pro-Palestinian Protests Continue for a Second Day at Columbia University

Equipo
By Equipo
7 Min Read

For a second day, pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University on Thursday directly challenged the vow that their administrators made during a high-stakes congressional committee hearing to crack down on unauthorized student protests as part of the university’s fight against antisemitism.

The students have set up dozens of tents on the South Lawn of the campus, in front of the Butler Library. They have also set up a makeshift kitchen and held a teach-in and a film screening. Though Columbia administrators have closed the campus’s gates to outsiders, hundreds of students and others rallied with the protesters inside and outside of the school, overnight and through the morning.

“They can threaten us all they want with the police, but at the end of the day, it’s only going to lead to more mobilization,” said Maryam Alwan, a senior and pro-Palestinian organizer on campus, speaking from the tent encampment.

The escalation is a sharp challenge to Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, who largely conceded in a hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Wednesday that she felt some of the common chants at pro-Palestinian protests were antisemitic. It underscores the difficulty that she and other college presidents are facing as they try to strike a balance between supporting the free speech rights of some students and protecting other students from statements academic leaders say are discriminatory and hateful.

“Trying to reconcile the free speech rights of those who want to protest and the rights of Jewish students to be in an environment free of harassment or discrimination has been the central challenge on our campus,” Ms. Shafik told members of Congress on Wednesday.

Etched into Columbia’s history is the brutal police crackdown its administrators authorized in 1968 against student protesters who were occupying academic buildings. The fallout of the violence tarnished the school’s reputation and led it to institute reforms in favor of student activism.

Now, the university points proudly to that activism as one of the hallmarks of its culture, and markets it to prospective students.

But in recent months, the school’s leadership has taken a number of steps to restrict protests and has disciplined dozens of students who it says have broken the rules. Columbia has hired external security firms and brought the police to campus for the first time in decades.

During her testimony, Ms. Shafik said she had been frustrated “that Columbia’s policies and structures were sometimes unable to meet the moment,” and said the university had updated many of them. Some of those changes include limiting protests to certain times of day and to designated spots on campus.

“This approach allows for fewer limits on speech — usually a desirable value at a university — because those who don’t want to hear what is being said need not listen,” Ms. Shafik wrote in an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal this week.

As Ms. Shafik was testifying in Congress, Columbia administrators warned the students in the encampment that they would face immediate suspension if they did not disperse. Administrators sent in trained delegates to speak with students in an attempt to de-escalate the showdown.

On Thursday afternoon, Columbia officials said all students in the encampment would be suspended. “We are continuing to identify them and will be sending out formal notifications,” a spokeswoman said.

The police had not arrested anyone on campus as of Thursday morning, though just outside the campus gates, there were several arrests of demonstrators who had come to show their support for the encampment. Dozens of police officers stood near lines of students, faculty and employees waited to scan their IDs to get through the gates.

And three Barnard students at the encampment received word by email that they had been suspended, protesters said.

Among them was Isra Hirsi, a Barnard student and an organizer with Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a pro-Palestinian group. She is also the daughter of Representative Ilhan Omar, one of the few lawmakers who questioned Dr. Shafik during the Wednesday hearing about the university’s treatment of pro-Palestinian protesters.

In a statement, Apartheid Divest said that protesters planned to remain until the university met its demands, including to divest funds from companies that invest in Israel.

“We will not comply until our demands are met or they remove the nonviolent protesters in the encampment by force,” the statement said.

Ami Nelson, 23, a freshman, said she had been distressed by the words of the protesters. “It’s painful to hear,” she said. She said she didn’t feel physically threatened, but she believed demonstrators should be suspended or expelled.

“They have guidelines and if they are violating them, I don’t see why this is a special circumstance,” she said.

As a rally began around noon, more people gathered in the center of campus. Caro Bratnober, 36, a librarian at Union Theological Seminary, was passing by. “They’re just sitting there in tents,” she said. “I hope one day this will be celebrated and remembered as a positive thing that happened that these students are standing for.”

Anna Betts, Karla Marie Sanford and Liset Cruz contributed reporting.

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