Protests in Gaza: Police raid on Columbia demonstration sparked a movement on campus

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On Wednesday, April 17, before daybreak, a small group of Columbia University students set up tents to protest Israeli military action in Gaza and to demand that their university cease doing business with organizations they believe to be in favor of the war.

They did so while Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, traveled to Capitol Hill to answer questions from Congress about antisemitism on campus and her response to it.

That Wednesday, during almost four hours of interrogation, she justified the steps she had already taken. “Pupils are getting the message that violations of our policies will have consequences,” the speaker claimed.

 

The president of Columbia made a decision the following afternoon that set off a nationwide firestorm of protest at campuses around the country.

She claimed that many of their friends were subjected to a “harassing and intimidating environment” by the students at the protest camp, who were also trespassing and had refused to leave.

She had the NYPD called in.

Soon after, more than 100 students were arrested by police from the biggest police department in the US. This was the first time that large-scale arrests had occurred on Columbia’s campus since protests against the Vietnam War more than 50 years prior. The policemen were dressed in riot gear and used plastic handcuffs.

Columbia doctorate candidate Rashida Mustafa remarked, “It was a shock to us all.” “I was astonished. However, I sensed a summons to action.” Students’ reaction was instantaneous. A second grass a little distance away had become the site of another protest camp by the following day.

It had grown from a few tents to a crowded campsite, with live music, buffet-style dinners made of donated food, and a “security team” stationed at the gate to keep an eye out for intruders. It was far larger than it had been previously.

A day later, at Yale University in Connecticut, another prestigious college, a protest camp was established slightly over 70 miles (112 km) northeast of Columbia.

By this week’s middle, protests were occurring on numerous campuses around the nation. A nationwide protest campaign was started by the Columbia students.

University administrators are facing difficult questions in light of the students’ ire over Israel’s tactics in the battle against Hamas. These administrators are already dealing with contentious discussions on campus over events in the Middle East.

How do they strike a compromise between the need to keep students safe from injury and abuse and the freedom of speech and protest? When will the police be sent in to enforce university policies, knowing full well that harsh replies will be captured on camera and broadcast quickly across millions of social media feeds?

Many students were still asleep when police at Yale arrived at a protest campsite in the middle of the campus early on April 22. After refusing to leave, about fifty students were taken into custody, some of them wrapping their arms around a flagpole.

They arrived abruptly and with great speed. “A large number of police officers just poured into the plaza,” law student Chisato Kimura told the BBC from New Haven.

“Seeing a militarised force, invited by Yale to come onto campus, was very jarring,” she stated. “We were peacefully protesting.”

Following Hamas’ onslaught on Israel on October 7, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people, the majority of whom were civilians, and the kidnapping of 253 more, US college campuses have become hotspots for rallies against the Gaza conflict. The health ministry operated by Hamas reports that since then, over 34,000 people have died in Gaza, the most of whom being women and children.

But over the last ten days, US protests have been more widespread and intense than they have in the previous six months. After the first Columbia camp was evicted, simmering tensions erupted; fights and arrests occurred elsewhere.

State troopers, some mounted, broke up hundreds of students who were camped out on the campus lawn at the University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday. A video of a female professor being stopped and handcuffed by a police officer at Emory University in Atlanta went viral on Thursday. The professor was wrestled to the ground by the officer.

Protesters have also been confronted by police at the University of Southern California (USC), New York University, George Washington University in Washington, DC, and Emerson College in Boston.

The protest encampments are requesting that university authorities sever links with Israeli academic institutions, declare a formal ceasefire, and “divest” school endowments from businesses they believe are connected to Israel’s war in Gaza.

A few Jewish instructors and students have expressed concern for their safety. And part of the reason why Ms. Shafik and other university authorities called in the police was because of these worries.

Columbia political science professor Page Fortna asserted, “Students have a right to protest.” “But they don’t have a right to protest in a way that makes other students feel discriminated against or harassed.”

Jewish students at various colleges described unsettling experiences they had this week, including physical altercations, imagined threats, and shouts and posters endorsing Hamas, a banned terrorist organization.

Jewish student at USC Eli Kia, 22, claimed that he has been living in continual fear and anxiety as a result of the protests. He wears a Star of David on a chain, which he has started to conceal.

He told the news channel, “It’s challenging to feel safe coming to school every day.” “There’s that second idea when you walk on campus of ‘what am I going to walk into?’ and ‘what am I affecting?’, and ‘who’s possibly coming after me?'”

In an effort to disassociate themselves from antisemitic acts, several protestors have placed the blame for some of these incidents on outside agitators. They argue that the emphasis should be on the number of civilian deaths in Gaza and that many Jewish students have joined the protests.

Many protesters, as well as those who support them outside, believe that the movement will continue because of what they perceive to be oppressive police methods as discussions between institutions and students drag on.

Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Democrat who has been vocally critical of the Biden administration’s Gaza policy, told the BBC this week while visiting the Columbia encampment, “This is a movement that started with only 70 students.”

“And because Columbia University decided to crack down on them and violate their first amendment, this has now spread nationally and internationally.”

One of the arrested Columbia demonstrators was her daughter.

USC student Omar Zegar stated that he thought Columbia was only the beginning of a larger movement. “I think a lot of universities nationwide will begin doing these encampments,” he stated. “The police escalated the situation.”

Some analysts compare the protests to anti-US rallies during the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Similar to the Vietnam War, Marianne Hirsch, a professor at Columbia University who took part in the demonstrations in the 1960s, told reporters this week that the circumstances in Gaza should make it “impossible to continue business as usual.”

As he runs for reelection, President Joe Biden is facing political pressure due to the protest wave. Biden has been criticized by some for his nation’s support of Israel.

Some Democrats are worried that thousands of demonstrators will throng Chicago this summer, the city where the party will officially nominate him for president. Protests against the Vietnam War overshadowed the 1968 convention, which was held in Chicago as well.

Attending rallies this week, USC graduate Ahmad Hasan expressed his belief that the student protests would influence US sentiments more broadly.

“It has always rested on students to tell people that this is not right,” he stated, “that we won’t stand for this.”