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NYU Has NYPD Arrest and Pepper-Spray Protesters at Pro-Palestine Student Encampment

"The cops stormed in with their sticks and they started arresting people by the dozen, and they started to pepper-spray people left and right."

(Noah Hurowitz / Hell Gate)

An NYPD raid Monday evening on a pro-Palestine encampment set up by New York University students earlier that day led to running skirmishes as cops swung batons, indiscriminately pepper-sprayed people, and arrested dozens of protesters, including NYU faculty who had formed a protective ring around students. 

"The cops stormed in with their sticks and they started arresting people by the dozen, and they started to pepper-spray people left and right," Malik Hassan, 27, of Brooklyn, told Hell Gate.

The encampment began early Monday morning, when protesters set up tents in Gould Plaza outside NYU's Stern School of Business, just east of Washington Square Park, to demand that the university divest from companies profiting from the war, shut down the university branch in Tel Aviv, and provide amnesty to any students previously disciplined for pro-Palestine activism. 

Throughout the day, the crowd around the encampment swelled as sympathizers gathered in solidarity and in an effort to provide protection to the students inside Gould Plaza. 

"I saw Jewish and Christian and interfaith advocates and human beings standing up for brothers and sisters in Palestine, and protecting our Muslim brothers and sisters who were praying," Hassan said. "I saw incredible acts of solidarity, and it was peaceful."

(Hell Gate)

NYU administrators were less happy about the protest, complaining of "disorderly, disruptive and antagonizing behavior that has interfered with the safety of our community," according to a letter to NYPD brass, a copy of which was posted to X by NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry.

"At this point, we consider all protesters occupying Gould Plaza to be trespassers," officials wrote, "and we would like the NYPD to clear the area and take action to remove the protesters."

The NYPD complied with gusto, sending in top leaders including Daughtry and Jeffrey Maddrey, as well as members of its notorious Strategic Response Group, to break up the encampment and arrest participants, including students and professors. 

Just after 8 p.m., as Muslim protesters inside the encampment prayed, police in riot gear began pushing into the crowd of supporters, starting with a group of NYU faculty members that had encircled the students, according to witnesses and videos posted to social media.

Following the arrests in Gould Plaza, a contingent of several dozen protesters sat down in the street at the intersection of West Third Street and Mercer Street, blocking the path of the NYPD buses carrying people who had been arrested, leading to a brief standoff that ended when a group of officers swept into the intersection, clearing it enough for the caravan of buses to proceed. As police on foot escorted the buses forward, one officer began spraying anyone in her path with what appeared to be pepper spray, including a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild and one unlucky Hell Gate reporter. While this reporter's exposure to the chemical irritant was minor, others could be seen clutching their eyes and dousing their faces in milk to stop the burning.

The bulk of the protesters soon regrouped and began to march downtown, winding through SoHo, Chinatown, and Little Italy with minimal police presence before finally coming to a stop at the security perimeter outside One Police Plaza, where those who were arrested were being booked.

The NYU protest was the third such encampment to spring up in New York City, coming on the heels of an occupation at the New School. Both drew inspiration from the Gaza Solidarity Encampment that sprang up at Columbia University on April 16. The Columbia encampment, which has survived an attempt by that school’s administration to dislodge it with the help of the NYPD, has inspired likeminded protests at schools across the country in response to Israel’s devastating war in Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 people and displaced the vast majority of Gazans.

(Noah Hurowitz / Hell Gate)

In an email sent to the NYU community on Monday night, President Linda G. Mills and Fountain Walker, the university's vice president for global campus safety defended the decision to bring in the NYPD. The encampment, they wrote, was "already considerably disruptive of classes and other operations in schools around the plaza." They wished to "avoid any escalation or violence," but according to Mills and Walker, when people "breached the barriers that had been put in place," which they noted "was in violation of directions from Campus Safety Officers and in violation of multiple University rules," and ignored a dispersal order, they seemed to feel they had no choice but to sicc the NYPD on their own students and faculty. "While academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas are and always will be bedrock principles on NYU’s campus, hate, disruption and intimidation can never be countenanced," they added. 

In a letter, the executive committee of NYU's American Association of University Professors chapter pushed back against Mills and Walker's claims. "At no point were non-NYU people knowingly allowed to join the Plaza encampment, and at no time was anyone on the Plaza either violent or antisemitic in speech or behavior," they wrote. "There was NO incitement at all. At any time. NYU Leadership's decision to call the NYPD was capricious, unwarranted, and without justification."

The decision by Mills to bring in the NYPD mirrored a similar call from Columbia President Minouche Shafik, who has endured withering criticism from students and faculty for begging  NYPD officers to rout the encampment there last week. On Monday, hundreds of Columbia faculty members walked out in protest of the crackdown.

The pro-Palestine encampments have also come under intense criticism from pro-Israel corners for allegations of antisemitic chants and general accusations of making Jewish students feel unsafe. "We don't feel protected by the university at this current moment given that they're enabling this to happen, NYU business school student Celia Steinhauer, who described herself as a "staunch Zionist," told Gothamist on Monday while she and others staged a counterprotest across the street from Gould Plaza. 

The Columbia encampment in particular has attracted condemnations from not only Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul, but CNN anchor Jake Tapper, President Joe Biden, and Senator John Fetterman—all despite heavy involvement from Jewish protesters, a group of whom celebrated a Passover seder at the Columbia encampment Monday. Most of the incidents that critics have pointed to, including one protester who celebrated the October 7 attacks and a man in a keffiyeh telling Jews to "go back to Poland"—while inexplicably using the Hebrew word for Jews—have taken place off campus, rather than inside the encampment itself. 

At NYU, Professor Rebecca Karl, of the College of Arts and Sciences, addressed allegations of antisemitism directly on Monday. "We reject outright the administration’s insistence that criticism of Israeli state policy is inherently antisemitic, and so constitutes discrimination,” Karl told the Washington Square News.

Outside of One Police Plaza, organizers began passing out food, and dozens of Muslim protesters knelt for prayer as the crowd settled in to await the release of arrested protesters, who began to exit the bowels of the police headquarters one by one just before midnight.

"This definitely feels like a historic moment," said Mickey, a 25-year-old protester, who requested that he be identified only by his first name. "It's months of hard work and organizing that's paying off."

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