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Columbia’s President Saw ‘Danger’ in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. Even the Cops Disagree

You know you fucked up when the NYPD is throwing you under the bus.

(Screenshot from a video posted to @NYPDDaughtry’s X account)

The only person more sensitive and reactive to perceived danger than a police officer? Apparently, a university president. On Thursday, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik sicced the NYPD on her own students, forcibly removing anyone participating in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, which began on Wednesday morning. The NYPD reportedly arrested 108 protesters, charging all of them with trespassing, and handing out two additional charges of obstructing governmental administration—but according to one of the City's top cops, their heart wasn't really in it like Shafik's was.

According to a letter Shafik sent to the NYPD on Thursday requesting "the NYPD’s help to remove these individuals," Shafik wrote that she'd "determined that the encampment and related disruptions pose a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University," and that "the actions of these individuals are in violation of University rules and policies, including that they have interfered with the operation of the University, refused to identify themselves, refused to disperse, set up tents on campus space, failed to comply with policies, and damaged campus property."

The NYPD, however, doesn't seem to agree with Shafik's assessment of the situation. NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell said the "clear and present danger" allegedly posed by the Gaza Solidarity Encampment was identified by Columbia, not by the NYPD, at a press conference on Thursday. He noted that the NYPD had zero reports of violence or injuries—except, perhaps, bruising to Shafik's ego—associated with the encampment. "To put this in perspective, the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner," Chell said. That's quite the admission from a police department that has no love for its city's protesters, and has cracked down, hard, on pro-Palestine demonstrations since October.

Once given the green light by Shafik, the NYPD sent in its notorious Strategic Response Group, which the New York Civil Liberties Union considered a much more clear danger to students than any protests, given the SRG's "history of escalation and violence."

One might think that the primary role of a university president is to ensure the wellbeing and educational experience of the students who enroll in your institution. But Shafik, it seems, is currently answering a higher calling—the call to tongue-bathe the boots of Congressmember Elise Stefanik and the rest of the Republican-led House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, which this year has been grilling the leaders of institutions on whether they support Israel ferociously and blindly—I mean, "oppose antisemitism." On Wednesday, it was Shafik's turn to testify before the committee. It wasn't enough that Shafik promised she was looking to discipline students and educators for using "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," one of the most common pro-Palestine slogans there is, or that she agreed that more suspensions and other forms of punishment were necessary—Shafik apparently felt the need the next day to demonstrate her commitment to "stopping antisemitism" with force, by wielding the zip-ties and paddy wagons of the nation's largest police force against young people using their freedom of speech to stand up for a cause they believe in. 

Shafik explained herself further in an email to Columbia's students, faculty, and staff on Thursday afternoon. "I have always said that the safety of our community was my top priority and that we needed to preserve an environment where everyone could learn in a supportive context," Shafik wrote. "Out of an abundance of concern for the safety of Columbia’s campus, I authorized the New York Police Department to begin clearing the encampment from the South Lawn of Morningside campus that had been set up by students in the early hours of Wednesday morning." She further cited the "long list of rules and policies" that the pro-Palestine protesters allegedly "violated" by taking the kind of action—camping out on a lawn—that "severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students." Those violated policies reportedly include a requirement that students alert the university of a planned action at least two days in advance and only protest in "authorized areas."

Shafik's performance in front of the House committee and her decision to let cops onto her campus were aberrant enough to stir Columbia and Barnard professors to speak up against her, and elicit a statement from the prestigious Columbia Journalism School on Friday morning: "Columbia Journalism School is committed to a free press. If you are a credentialed member of the media and have been denied access to campus, please send us a DM. We will facilitate access to campus."

But more than that, when the police, whose entire job hinges on having a free pass to react with force to any perceived threat to their safety, admit that they think you're being so dramatic about danger that they openly disagree with you and heavily insinuate that they wouldn't have used force in the same circumstances? You know you fucking stepped in it. 

As of this morning, Columbia students are back on the lawn, anyway. 

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