Columbia meets encampments with force

May 9, 2024

by Bob French

On April 30, Columbia University administrators called in New York City police to evict protesters from Hamilton Hall who had broken in that day. They also charged the police with clearing from campus the tent encampment created in defense of the citizens of Gaza against the Israeli mass slaughter of civilians. In the process they arrested 300. This followed by less than two weeks police arresting 100 students in a smaller occupation of the yard. Those first arrests came the day after U.S. House leader Elyse Stefanik grilled Columbia President Minouche Shafik, accusing her of tolerating anti-Semitism at the University.


Encampment at Columbia University, 4/21/2024. Photo: عباد ديرانية, CC0 1.0 DEED

The forceful removal spurred the formation of encampments in defense of Gaza and against the genocide of Palestinians on more than 120 campuses across the U.S. and internationally—from McGill in Montreal to the Sorbonne in Paris. Because administrators at Columbia and other colleges and universities had no cogent arguments to counter students’ demands that their schools divest from Israel’s war machine or demand that the Biden Administration stop providing weaponry and diplomatic cover for Netanyahu’s war crimes, they discredited the movement by equating any demonstration with support for Hamas and/or claimed anti-Semitism among protesters.

It wasn’t hard for school officials to find examples of anti-Semitism in a mass movement, or for MAGA politicians—who defended actual Nazis in the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally during Trump’s first year in the White House—to point with alarm now. There are always provocateurs; and the arrest of Green Party Presidential candidate and Putin asset Jill Stein at Washington University in St. Louis is evidence that protesters have to contend with participants with their own axe to grind. Yet one Columbia administrator reported on her anonymous visits to the encampment where she mingled with students while wearing a prominent Star of David and other outward signs of her Jewish identification, only to feel safe and unchallenged throughout.

While I am not near enough to listen to activists at Columbia speak for themselves, the school’s current refusal to engage with the demands of protesters in any way but police violence and arrest power is all too familiar to me as a participant in occupations on the same campus in 1968. Students then had occupied Hamilton Hall, as well as Low Library and three other campus buildings, with the anti-Vietnam War demand that Columbia end involvement with Defense Department projects and stop seizing rare park acreage available to the Harlem community for a new Ivy League gym.


Columbia dared not address the Vietnam War, which had become so unpopular that even Nixon ran on a peace platform that year. It also shunned any talk of racism expanding into a park, so it attacked the occupations for simply breaking campus rules.

After seven days of a nonviolent standoff, on the night of April 30, 56 years to the day before these current arrests, the NYPD was called in to clear all five buildings, and bloodily. Cops arrested over 650 occupiers with heavy use of fists and blackjacks.

Newspapers from The New York Times to the New York Post, then considered liberal, all praised the actions of the police and roundly condemned the students. But multiple campuses began their own occupations. Despite the continued NYPD presence (I got hit in the head a second time in one of their provocations), the administration lost control of the entire yard. It became the site for “liberated” classes, dialogue with supporters like Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg, and performances by up-and-coming musicians like Jerry Jeff Walker and the Grateful Dead, culminating in an Alternate Graduation in June.

Arrests and the threat of police remaining on campus the rest of the school year have not quieted the protests at Columbia in 2024 either. The next day, students kept up the pressure with steady marches around the campus. Administrators, despite the power of the police, Mayor Eric Adams and MAGA politicians hounding them, have proved to be without power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *