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Columbia’s Student Protesters Are Still Schooling the Administration

Less than 24 hours after the university administration announced a hard line on students demanding divestment from the war on Gaza, the students escalated their protest, taking over a university building.

A sign lies on the fence of the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University. (Angelica Ang / Hell Gate)

This week started badly for the Columbia University administration and then it got worse. For nearly two weeks, the Gaza solidarity movement at Columbia has boiled over into a protest camp at the heart of campus, commanding media attention and helping to inspire a host of other college and university occupations around the country, aided to no small extent by the administration's ham-fisted efforts to crush the movement, including by inviting the NYPD onto campus to arrest students for trespassing (on their own campus).

The administration continued its heavy-handed bluster Monday morning with a letter from Columbia President Minouche Shafik announcing that the administration's negotiations with protesters were at a standstill, that the administration had no intention of entertaining the protesters' demands to divest from companies that profit from Israel's invasion of Gaza and occupation of Palestinian lands, and that the protesting students needed to vacate their encampment so that graduation ceremonies can take place normally.

Then the university let it be known that the students occupying a corner of the Morningside campus' central quad had until 2 p.m. to leave and sign papers pledging not to take part in any protest actions that violate university rules. If they left and signed the papers, they would be placed on disciplinary probation. If they didn't leave, they would be subject to suspension, losing their academic standing, their access to campus facilities, their university housing, and their health insurance.

The occupying students, presented with this ultimatum, convened a meeting, took a vote, and resolved to stay.

On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of reporters and TV news crews lined up outside the tightly guarded campus gate, waiting to be allowed in to interview the students. Around them, a small circus grew. Evangelists of Bob Avakian and Robert Kennedy Jr. worked the crowd. Burly bearded Christian gentlemen set up a display of yellow and black posters advertising their concern about rising antisemitism. A few dozen cops milled around, a police drone droned, helicopters circled. Asked if the police were on hand to manage demonstrations outside the gates or to once again enter the campus, a public information officer shrugged expressively. 

At 2 p.m., the media hordes were loosed on the campus like the running of the bulls, as throngs of reporters raced through the quad and half-erected commencement grandstands to find their own protesting student to interview. The students, for their part, were ready for their media moment, as a massive column of marching students circled the quad in an uninterrupted ring, chanting "Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!"

Darializa Avila Chevalier, a former member of Columbia's Students for Justice in Palestine, at the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. (Angelica Ang / Hell Gate)

"It's been really incredible to see," said Darializa Avila Chevalier, an alumna who helped found the Columbia University apartheid divestment campaign in 2016. "You know, when we first were discussing the campaign, we figured it'd be like 20 years before we got any actual wins in the campaign. And just to see how, you know, within a few years, Columbia College voted to divest, Barnard voted to divest. And now seeing this, is just far beyond anything I ever imagined at the time," Chevalier said.

Claire, a senior at Barnard, told Hell Gate that the administration's entire approach seems to privilege interests outside of the school's educational mission. "They don't respect the fact that the university is made up of people and instead, they are catering to the people who are donating," she said.

Linnea Norton, a PhD student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences who has already received a suspension for her activism, also put the onus for the escalating tensions on the administration. "The school is escalating this, they're choosing to not negotiate with us anymore," she said. "If I were a parent, I would not send my child to this school right now, if I knew that if they expressed their views on something that they care about, they would potentially be arrested and brutalized by the New York Police Department."

The questions on many reporters' lips framed the students and their protest encampment as on the defensive: What did they make of the administration's threats of suspension? Were they scared? Were they daunted? When did they think the administration might try again to clear them out, with police or private security, and how would they react when that happened?

"I don't even think the administration knows what's going to happen," said Alex Romero, an MFA student. "I think they're really hoping that they'll scare us away and that we'll all just pack up and go. But as you can see, that's not what it looks like."

The students were not on their back feet, however, and the initiative was never with the administration. The protesters were uncowed by the threats. The 2 p.m. ultimatum deadline came and went without incident. The university administration gave a brief and opaque press conference in which they asserted that they had already begun issuing suspensions to students. The demonstrators carried on, unmolested, as evening fell and into the night. Then, around two in the morning, one group of protesters feigned creating another encampment in the yard, while another group broke into Hamilton Hall and occupied it, renaming it Hind's Hall after a five-year-old Palestinian child killed by the Israeli military earlier this year, and unfurling a banner from an upper window that read "Intifada."

The takeover of the erstwhile Hamilton Hall is a potentially powerful symbolic move, putting the divestment protesters in a long tradition of other Hamilton Hall takeovers, largely viewed in hindsight as righteous: takeovers in 1968 and 1972 against racism and the Vietnam War, and in 1985, a takeover by a divestment movement targeting another internationally condemned apartheid regime, South Africa.

Dr. Sheldon Pollock, a retired faculty member of Columbia University, outside the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. (Angelica Ang / Hell Gate)

Speaking to Hell Gate on Monday afternoon before the takeover, Sheldon Pollock, a retired Columbia professor on hand to support the students, invoked that history. "I think it's a historic moment in the long and glorious history of activism at Columbia," he said. "I actually started my career at Columbia in 1966 and joined a student movement, and I think it ended the war in Vietnam. I think it ended apartheid or helped to end apartheid. I think it brought LGBTQ equality. I'm talking about social activism. And I think it's going to help us solve the climate crisis. So I'm totally in support of the students."

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