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The Cops

Inside the NYPD’s ‘Dystopian’ Raid on Columbia Student Protesters

Columbia admin and the NYPD tried to keep the press from seeing Tuesday night's massive raid up close. They didn’t quite succeed.

Police swarm the Columbia campus April 30. (Anna Oakes / Hell Gate)

Shortly after 9:00 p.m., echoes of "shame!" drifted over the south lawns of Columbia University’s central campus, as hundreds of police officers flooded the campus via the southwest gates at 115th Street and Broadway. Around half of the officers encircled the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, which has occupied much of Columbia's Morningside Heights campus since April 17; others spread out among the piles of chairs stacked on the lawn in preparation for the university commencement, in two weeks. The rest moved toward Hamilton Hall, the central building of the university administration, where a group of several dozen protesters calling for the university to disclose and divest its financial holdings in Israel and grant amnesty to suspended students had barricaded themselves since shortly after midnight on Monday.

Over the next three hours, police in riot gear broke into Hamilton Hall and arrested the protesters occupying the building, swept through the encampment, forced many journalists and students off campus, and prevented the remaining students and faculty on campus from leaving their buildings until midnight—a dramatic escalation of the repression that pro-Palestinian students have faced on campus since the outbreak of Israel's war on Gaza.

The police and university had already barred outside press from the central campus, where they might have observed what was about to unfold. A crowd of student onlookers and journalists, most from student-run outlets, had already gathered in front of Hamilton Hall, which protesters had dubbed Hind's Hall in memory of a six-year-old girl, Hind Rajab, killed by the Israeli military in January. Having heard reports of an imminent police sweep, a group of around 20 protesters wearing keffiyehs and facemasks to hide their identities linked their arms in front of the hall's main entrance as they sang "We Shall Not Be Moved."

Three hours earlier, Mayor Eric Adams told reporters at a press conference that these demonstrations had "basically been co-opted by outside agitators," and urged students still on campus to "leave." 

"These people are not Columbia students. They are not affiliated with the university, and they are working to escalate the situation," NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban added. Adams and Caban said that Columbia University President Minouche Shafik had not yet asked the NYPD to raid the campus—that request followed soon after. In a letter Shafik sent to the NYPD on Tuesday, she reiterated the idea that the Hamilton Hall takeover was "led by individuals who are not affiliated with the University," adding that they "have vandalized University property and are trespassing." The students in the encampment, she wrote, "are suspended, not authorized to be on University property and are trespassing." "With the utmost regret, we request the NYPD’s help to clear all individuals from Hamilton Hall and all campus encampments," Shafik continued. "We trust that you will take care and caution when removing any individual from our campus. The safety and security of our community is our highest priority, especially for our students. We appreciate your commitment to assist us in a peaceful and respectful manner at this difficult time."

Once summoned—again—by Shafik, the NYPD moved quickly. Beginning around 9:10 p.m, police officers stepped into the encampment, located roughly 200 feet away from Hamilton Hall, and rifled through carefully organized tents as they waved flashlights. No students appeared to be in the tents.

At the same time, a large group of more than 100 NYPD officers in riot gear, some gripping batons, moved on Hamilton Hall, pushing journalists and protesters back into various corners. "Get back! Get back!" some of the cops yelled as they ushered the crowd up a staircase, causing a journalist to stumble and almost fall. According to one video, one student was pushed so hard they tumbled down the steps. 

Press and student supporters at both the encampment and Hamilton Hall encountered a perimeter of cops who refused to allow them to get closer. A small cohort of journalists who had positioned themselves closer to Hamilton Hall before the police had closed in were pushed by cops toward a neighboring dorm. Police didn’t let that group leave the dorm until three hours later, after midnight. Other journalists were escorted off campus by police, and were not allowed to re-enter the campus until several hours later. 

(Claudia Gohn / Hell Gate)

Around 9:30 p.m., a group of officers from the NYPD's Emergency Service Unit—a heavily armored unit trained in breaching doors—arrived at Hamilton Hall soon after the press were cornered away from Hamilton. The officers clutched bulky gear, including heavy-duty shields and industrial saws, and marched up to where students had linked arms. The group of students sitting at the College Walk entrance to Hamilton were grabbed and pushed to the ground or away from the entrance. Some officers shoved protesters. Video shows that police were also entering Hamilton Hall through a window on Amsterdam Avenue, using an enormous armored vehicle with a siege tower-like ladder attachment on the roof—the same vehicle the head of the NYPD's public information office had been seen riding atop earlier. As it maneuvered into position outside Hamilton Hall, that truck had crashed into a bus stop, leaving shattered glass and a lopsided metal frame in its wake. 

(Anna Oakes / Hell Gate)

Reporters were barred from entering Hamilton Hall, but video from inside the building shows police officers, with their weapons drawn, entering each room. Not long afterwards, protesters that were occupying Hamilton were brought out in handcuffs and taken off campus. In a press conference this morning, the NYPD said that 119 protesters had been arrested at Columbia on Tuesday evening.

Many Columbia students on campus Tuesday evening were not surprised by the police response. 

"I expected it," said an undergraduate student who asked to remain anonymous. “I think police presence on campuses is wack. I'm not for it. I was definitely against Minouche calling the NYPD here a couple weeks ago on the encampment." They added, of the spectacle of hordes of police officers on campus, "It's dystopian. I think it's antithetical to what a university should be and what it should look like."

The takeover of Hamilton Hall came after two weeks of repression against Columbia student protesters. On April 18, Shafik called in the NYPD to arrest students at the just-established encampment, causing a huge outcry. Undeterred, a new encampment began in the lawn directly beside the original. That encampment was, on the whole, a fairly calm, well-organized scene: Committees organized clean-ups, security, and food. Spaces were designated for first-aid supplies, including sunscreen, warm food donations, and teach-ins. In the days since, encampments have popped up at colleges across the city, including City College, the New School, and New York University, and at universities around the country.

But Columbia administrators were clearly alarmed by the new encampment, as well as the Hamilton Hall occupation. Since the early days of the encampment, a group of student protesters, faculty, and administration representatives had been meeting in daily, hours-long negotiations. University representatives offered to consider student “proposals” for divestment; scholarships for Palestinians; “educational and health programs” in Palestine; and, reportedly, an expansion of the university’s reach into Haifa. Over the weekend, both sides announced negotiations over the encampment had reached an impasse. The protestors would not leave the lawn until Columbia disclosed its financial holdings in Israel, divested from those holdings, and granted amnesty to suspended students, the student encampment coalition said. And Columbia, as Shafik announced Monday morning, was not willing to divest. 

Around 10:30 p.m., as the arrests at Hamilton Hall concluded, about 100 students stood on the overpass that connects the central campus to the law school, looking over Columbia’s eastern gates. On the ground below, lines of police officers in riot gear faced chanting protesters, and from the aforementioned siege-style truck, a ladder extended into the street-side entrance of Hamilton Hall. 

(Anna Oakes / Hell Gate)

As students watched intently from the overpass, over the mess of police, barricades, protestors, sirens, and the ladder-truck, some of them suddenly began to take off in a head-on sprint east. As more students noticed, they fled, too. Soon, an unidentified rapid loud knocking noise rang over the west side of the overpass, exacerbating the students' fear.

Around eight NYPD officers charged the students in starts and stops. They rapidly herded about 15 students, as well as a Hell Gate reporter and an ACLU legal observer, toward a closed undergraduate dorm, as they insisted the entire group leave campus. A campus security guard intervened and allowed students to return to their actual dorms, immediately. 

Two undergraduate students ran back toward the center of campus. “Honestly, [I’m] just terrified,” one of the students, who declined to share his name, said as he ran. “I couldn't even imagine the school being in this state at this point. Just trying to get back to the dorm and just seeing like a horde of cops just sort of pushing everybody away was pretty surreal to see.”

Law enforcement is likely to have a presence on campus through and after the Columbia graduation ceremonies. In Shafik's Tuesday letter to the NYPD, she asked the NYPD to "retain a presence on campus through at least May 17, 2024, to maintain order and ensure encampments are not reestablished.”

By 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, Columbia University facilities staff had almost finished clearing the lawn of its tents, signs, food table, microphones, library, art supplies, and Palestinian flags. A private cleaning company was stuffing tents into a garbage truck. 

(Anna Oakes / Hell Gate)

An hour later, at 3 a.m., and after officers took many bathroom and vending machine breaks in the journalism school building, the police finally left the campus. 

At 11:16 a.m., Shafik emailed the Columbia community with an explanation of why she had once again called on the NYPD to arrest student protesters. "I know I speak for many members of our community in saying that this turn of events has filled me with deep sadness. I am sorry we reached this point," she wrote, before praising the police. "I thank the NYPD for their incredible professionalism and support." Shafik added, "It is going to take time to heal, but I know we can do that together." 

As of this morning, three NYPD officers were back on campus, standing watch over the steps over the central lawn.

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