New York City police enter Columbia University amid pro-Palestinian protests


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New York City police enter Columbia University amid pro-Palestinian protests

PROTEST. A student protester waves a Palestinian flag from the roof of Hamilton Hall, where students at Columbia University have barricaded themselves as they continue to protest in support of Palestinians, despite orders from university officials to disband or face suspension, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City, US, April 30, 2024.

Caitlin Ochs/REUTERS

(3rd UPDATE) 'We cannot and will not allow what should be a peaceful gathering to turn into a violent spectacle that serves no purpose. We cannot wait until this situation becomes even more serious. This must end now,' says New York Mayor Eric Adams

New York City police officers entered the grounds of Columbia University on Tuesday night, April 30, in an apparent effort to disperse pro-Palestinian protesters who took over a campus building after a nearly two-week standoff with administrators of the Ivy League school.

Live television images showed police entering the elite campus in upper Manhattan, which has been the focal point of student protests that have spread to dozens of schools across the U.S. expressing opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza.

“We’re clearing it out” police in a riot unit yelled as they marched up to the barricaded entrance to the building. While dozens more police marched to the protest encampment.

“Shame! shame!” jeered many onlooking undergrads still outside on campus.

Columbia University officials earlier on Tuesday threatened academic expulsion of the students who seized Hamilton Hall.

The occupation began overnight when protesters broke windows and seized Hamilton Hall, where they unfurled a banner reading “Hind’s Hall,” symbolically renaming the building for a 6-year-old Palestinian child killed in Gaza by the Israeli military.

Outside the eight-story, neo-classical building – the site of various student occupations on the Manhattan campus dating back to the 1960s – protesters blocked the entrance with tables, linked arms to form a barricade and chanted pro-Palestinian slogans.

At an evening news briefing, Mayor Eric Adams and city police officials said the Hamilton Hall takeover was instigated by “outside agitators” who lack any affiliation with Columbia and are known to law enforcement for provoking lawlessness.

Police said they based their conclusions in part on escalating tactics in the occupation, including vandalism, use of barricades to block entrances and destruction of security cameras.

Adams suggested some of the student protesters were not fully aware of “external actors” in their midst.

“We cannot and will not allow what should be a peaceful gathering to turn into a violent spectacle that serves no purpose. We cannot wait until this situation becomes even more serious. This must end now,” the mayor said.

Tensions among the protesters rose after nightfall, a couple of hours later, as growing numbers of police, some in riot gear, became visible on city streets near campus and university administrators issued a “shelter in place” email notice to students.

New York Police Department officials had stressed that officers would refrain from entering the campus to address what currently amounted to low-level property crimes and disorderly conduct, unless Columbia administrators invited their presence.

While keeping regular contact with the university, city police have received no such request for assistance, NYPD officials told reporters at the Tuesday evening briefing.

One of the student leaders of the protest, Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian scholar attending Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs on a student visa, disputed assertions that outsiders had initiated the occupation.

“They’re students,” he told Reuters.

Started with tents

A day earlier, the university said it had begun suspending students who defied a deadline for vacating a tent camp that has become a focal point for dozens of student demonstrations around the US expressing opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza.

“Disruptions on campus have created a threatening environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty and a noisy distraction that interferes with the teaching, learning and preparing for final exams,” the university said in a statement on Tuesday.

New York Police Department officials had stressed before Tuesday night’s sweep that officers would refrain from entering the campus unless Columbia administrators invited their presence, as they did on April 18, when NYPD officers removed an earlier encampment.

The October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas militants from Gaza, and the ensuing Israeli offensive on the Palestinian enclave, have unleashed the biggest outpouring of student activism since the anti-racism protests of 2020.

Many of the demonstrations have been met with counter-protesters accusing them of fomenting anti-Jewish hatred. The pro-Palestinian side, including Jews opposed to Israeli actions in Gaza, say they are being unfairly branded as antisemitic for criticizing Israel’s government and expressing support for human rights.

In dealing with the protests, university officials have struggled to strike a balance between allowing freedom of expression and stamping out hate speech.

The issue has taken on political overtones in the run-up to the US presidential election in November, with Republicans accusing some university administrators of turning a blind eye to antisemitic rhetoric and harassment.

White House spokesperson John Kirby on Tuesday denounced non-peaceful forms of student protests, calling the occupation of campus buildings “the wrong approach.”

‘Untenable situation’

After the occupation, Columbia University issued a statement saying the protesters had “chosen to escalate an untenable situation” and that the school’s top priority was “restoring safety and order on our campus.”

“Students occupying the building face expulsion,” it said.

The school also said it was restricting campus access for the time being to undergraduate students who reside in dormitories and facilities staff who perform essential services, meaning faculty are mostly excluded.

A representative of the protesters who identified herself only as a graduate student told reporters outside Hamilton Hall that about 60 students were believed to be inside.

A few dozen students, some with tambourines, milled about outside the barricaded doors, clapping and chanting, “The people united will never be defeated,” and “Free Palestine!”

Pizzas and other food and supplies were passed to students inside the building in a plastic crate dangled from a pulley rope suspended from an upper-floor balcony. Chairs were piled up on the ledges of second-floor windows to prevent easy ladder access from the outside.

Khalil, one of the lead negotiators for the coalition of student protest groups said Columbia officials contacted him through mediators to ascertain the demands of the activists.

“Once they decide to come back to the table we can talk about demands,” said Khalil, speaking from an undisclosed off-campus location. “These students felt hurt and abandoned by the administration because it did not listen to their demands, so they had to do things differently.”

On Monday, Columbia began suspending students, including Khalil, who the university said had refused to leave the protest tent site when school officials declared a stalemate after days of talks aimed at ending the encampment. Seniors in violation will be ineligible to graduate, the university said.

The dozens of tents, pitched on a hedge-lined grassy area – beside a smaller lawn since planted with hundreds of small Israeli flags – were put up after New York City police cleared an earlier outpost on April 18. More than 100 arrests were made at the time, stirring an outcry by many students and staff.

Protesters are seeking three demands from Columbia: divestment from companies supporting Israel’s government, greater transparency in university finances, and amnesty for students and faculty disciplined over the protests.

University President Nemat Minouche Shafik this week said Columbia would not divest from finances in Israel. Instead, she offered to invest in health and education in Gaza and make Columbia’s direct investment holdings more transparent. –

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