Police arrest dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University

Shafik released letter in which she requested police stay on campus until at least May 17

Reuters May 01, 2024
Police use a special vehicle to enter Hamilton Hall which was occupied by protesters, as other officers enter the campus of Columbia University, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City, U.S., April 30, 2024. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs


New York City police arrested dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators holed up in an academic building on Columbia University campus late on Tuesday and removed a protest encampment the Ivy League school had sought to dismantle for nearly two weeks.

Shortly after police moved in, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik released a letter in which she requested police stay on campus until at least May 17 - two days after graduation - "to maintain order and ensure that encampments are not re-established."

Within three hours the campus had been cleared of protesters, said a police spokesperson, adding "dozens" of arrests were made.

At the start of the police operation around nine pm throngs of helmeted police marched onto the elite campus in upper Manhattan, a focal point of student rallies that have spread to dozens of schools across the US in recent days expressing opposition to Israel's war in Gaza.

"We're clearing it out," the police officers yelled.

Soon after, a long line of officers climbed into Hamilton Hall, an academic building that protesters had broken into and occupied in the early morning hours of Tuesday. Police entered through a second-story window, using a police vehicle equipped with a ladder.

Students standing outside the hall jeered police with shouts of "Shame, shame!"

Police were seen loading dozens of detainees onto a bus, each with their hands bound behind their backs by zip-ties, the entire scene illuminated with flashing red and blue lights of police vehicles.

"Free, free, free Palestine," chanted protesters outside the building. Others yelled, "Let the students go."

“Columbia will be proud of these students in five years,” said Sueda Polat, one of the student negotiators for Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the coalition of student groups that have organized the protests.

She said students did not pose a danger and called on police to back down, speaking as officers shouted at her and others to retreat or leave campus.

Protest demands

Protesters were 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.

President 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.

In her letter released on Tuesday, Shafik said the Hamilton Hall occupiers had vandalized University property and were trespassing, and that encampment protesters were suspended for trespassing. The university earlier warned that students taking part in the Hamilton Hall occupation faced academic expulsion.

The occupation began overnight when protesters broke windows, stormed inside and unfurled a banner reading "Hind's Hall," saying they were renaming the building for a 6-year-old Palestinian child killed in Gaza by the Israeli military.

The eight-story, neo-classical building has been the site of various student occupations dating back to the 1960s.

At an evening news briefing held a few hours before police entered Columbia, 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.

One of the student leaders of the protest, Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian scholar attending Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, disputed assertions that outsiders led the occupation.

"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 before police moved in.

Protests across country

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 U.S. student activism since the anti-racism protests of 2020.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators also gathered at City College New York in Harlem late Tuesday, with the university ordering individuals off the campus, New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry said in an X post. Dozens of protesters were arrested, the New York Times reported.

Daughtry also said the university had requested police presence to assist in dispersing trespassers.
The Chancellor at the University of California in Los Angeles said late Tuesday that law enforcement was engaged to investigate 'recent acts of violence' by a group of demonstrators and increased security in the area.

Many of the demonstrations across the country 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.

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 called the occupation of campus buildings "the wrong approach."

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. More than 100 arrests were made at that time, stirring an outcry by many students and staff.

Dozens of tents pitched on a hedge-lined grassy area - beside a smaller lawn since planted with hundreds of small Israeli flags - were put back up days later.


Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ