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Columbia Protesters, In Their Own Words

Hell Gate spoke to Columbia students about why they're protesting, whether they fear discipline from the university, and how this action fits into a tumultuous series of months.

(Angelica Ang / Hell Gate)

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik's request of the NYPD to break up a peaceful group of student demonstrators protesting Israel's war on Gaza appears to have backfired. Shafik's decision has attracted widespread criticism, including from Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute as well as from Union Theological Seminary, a Columbia affiliate. And instead of ending the student encampment, the protest has continued even after the NYPD arrests, and students have organized solidarity actions at campuses across the country. 

The Gaza Solidarity Encampment is merely the latest manifestation of months of student activism across the country, during which pro-Palestine students have been silenced, faced disciplinary hearings, or been suspended for their advocacy. Several students at Columbia and Barnard have already been suspended after their participation in the encampment. But this repression has not dampened student protests, including at the ongoing encampment.

The Gaza Solidarity Encampment on Friday. (Hell Gate / Angelica Ang)

Hell Gate spoke with protestors on campus on Friday afternoon. Because of the fear of continued reprisal by Columbia University administrators against students, only the subjects' first names are being used. They spoke about why they're protesting, whether they fear discipline from the university, and how this action fits into a tumultuous series of months.

Sherif, a pro-Palestine student protester at Columbia University. (Hell Gate / Angelica Ang)

I think it is a beautiful show of solidarity with Palestine in the face of a university that does not want to reckon with its own legacy, and does not want to listen to its entire student body, to its faculty, to its staff, that divestment needs to happen immediately. I believe this here is the community we have been waiting for. It is beyond loving. It is special and it is everything this university is repressing and depriving us of. 

And we here are dealing with the NYPD, we're dealing with doxxing, we're dealing with chemical attacks, we're dealing with an extremely fascist university, and in spite of that, our movement is only growing and it's only becoming more and more beautiful and stronger. And by the day, we prove the university wrong, and we tell them that repression will not work to stifle the opinion of the entire student body. 

(Hell Gate / Angelica Ang)

And they need to take a note and understand that only democracy, only allowing students to exercise their right to free speech, only a campus that is safe for all of its students, irrespective of them being pro-Palestinian or not, and them being Arab or Muslim or Palestinian, is the most key thing that the university needs to respect. 

It's not acting like a university. It is acting like a McCarthyist fascist institution. And we know this. The country knows this. The people on the streets know this. And we want more than ever to make it crystal clear to this university that we will not stop until we divest.

Twyla, a pro-Palestine student protester at Columbia University. (Hell Gate / Angelica Ang)

I came out today to support people, both the people in Palestine, the people in Gaza, as well as my peers. I have been fairly involved during the whole process ever since October, but I think it's important to sustain the action and go towards complete divestment.

Columbia's response, it's so bad. Don't arrest your students on their campus, on their lawns, in front of their peers? Also just like, don't invest in companies that are helping commit war crimes and are committing atrocities.

I think we've already started to change things. I think even just seeing the community that has grown, and the way we're supporting and protecting each other with food and physically protecting each other and everything is so beautiful. This was not planned. This was not a part of the encampment plan. And it just happened because the students saw the bravery of their peers, and decided to continue that bravery and continue that resistance. And I think this is just really a demonstration of the beauty of humanity, in this space. 

I think a lot of our words get really misconstrued. And I think that's why there's so much hesitation around talking to people is because, like, so much of the time, anything anybody says, it gets misconstrued to these horrible things. 

This is a movement for collective humanity and collective safety. And it's not trying to tear anybody down. So just like breaking down those perceptions of like, oh, these people are calling for the death of Jews—I am Jewish and I promise you, it's not. 

Ilan, a pro-Palestine student protester at Columbia University. (Hell Gate / Angelica Ang)

Young American Jews are becoming increasingly fed up with the status quo. We refuse to let what's happening be done in our name, especially at Columbia. The idea that we're seeing this level of censorship, this level of repression of attacking students supposedly being done in the name of my safety, doesn't keep me safe, doesn't keep other Jewish students safe. In fact, it endangers us, so we're here in solidarity. We're here to say, not in our name. We're here to reject the status quo. And we're here because it's the right thing to do at this moment.

Columbia University's administration lost its mandate. It lost the mandate from students. It lost the mandate from faculty. It's even losing the mandate from a lot of its own administrators. It's losing it from alumni. A university has to have trust of its students, of its faculty, to function. That's part of what makes the university a university, and the fact that President Shafik did not follow the proper procedures, and the fact that the University Senate was created post-'68 to prevent something like this from ever happening again, shows the level of failure that this university has enabled.

It wasn't an overnight process—it's been months leading up to this failure. It's been months of systemic inequality and failure, and of repression, of censorship. And it boiled over and it's reached this point where it is clear that the administration is out of touch, that they are wrong, and we're going to keep frickin' fighting.

Cer, a pro-Palestine student protester at Columbia University. (Hell Gate / Angelica Ang)

I think it's a very grave topic for our time, because there's obviously a lot of trauma for both sides. I find it very troubling that academic institutions are silencing voices, and silencing the narrative of the Palestinian people, because theirs is just as valid as the Jews who lived through the Holocaust. And a lot of Jews also see this, which is why they're here with us today.

I think they could take into account Muslim voices as equal to Jewish voices. And instead of playing into the kind of binary, be a space that unites them all through the higher virtues of humanity.

Laura, a pro-Palestine graduate student protester at Columbia University. (Hell Gate / Angelica Ang)

I'm a grad student. And it's just, when students are being suspended because they organized a resistance teach-in, which is within their rights, it felt so important to like, show up and have solidarity with your fellow students. 

The school has been—sorry for my French— it’s been shit. But I also am not surprised, because I had to face Minouche at LSE, at the London School of Economics last year when she was president there. And they, the people who were being attacked last year, were especially trans students and staff, and the queer community there.

We organized against it and Minouche was absolutely washing her hands off the whole thing. And I'm actually glad she had to respond to at least this type of behavior in front of Ilhan Omar and Congress. So I'm kind of happy finally, that somebody in a position of power sort of took her down, or at least gave her a hearing. I, of course, only supported Ilhan Omar in that hearing, because the rest of them were just nuts. 

I'm not surprised by this behavior. I am 100 percent appalled, though, at the fact that they would call the NYPD, especially considering many of the students are Black and brown and state violence in the U.S. is an extremely visceral and big part of the American fabric. And for a school, for an academic institution, instead of letting students be able to express their First Amendment rights and being able to give them the tools to understand what citizenship means and what those rights mean in that regard, they are arresting them, they're threatening, they're suspending them, they're evicting them? 

I found it extremely appalling. And then when a chemical attack happened, I wanted to protest. They did nothing, and they dragged it on and they barely took any action against the students who did do a violent thing towards others. And it's important to show solidarity. And I hope these students at least have the knowledge that the student body definitely supports and has their back. And I mean, big picture, genocide is happening and this is where we stand. We should divest and boycott. 

I see a lot of people here who are on visas who are supporting them and risking deportation and shit like that. And it's extremely important—everyone participating in whatever measure they can to help out. And I'm very proud of being part of the Columbia community because of those students. So I'm very proud of them, and I'm proud of being even just associated with them.

(Angelica Ang / Hell Gate)
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