Skip to Content
The Cops

‘The State Troopers Charged In’: An Eyewitness Account From Stony Brook Professor Arrested at Raid of SBU Pro-Palestine Encampment

"I’ve done civil disobedience before, but I’ve never seen the police arrest a peaceful group like this. This was like a military formation."

(Screenshot from a video posted to Josh Dubnau’s X account)

"My number one job is to keep the people of the state safe, and right now, there are many students not feeling safe on campus," Governor Kathy Hochul said on April 22, in a video filmed at Columbia University five days after students set up their first Gaza Solidarity Encampment on one of its lawns. A little less than two weeks later, after NYPD-led, university admin-sanctioned raids on Columbia, NYU, and City College, New York state also found a way to keep students feeling safe on campus: sending in state troopers to Stony Brook University on Long Island, at the request of the university, to violently arrest their peers in the middle of the night. 

On the evening of May 1, 29 people—two faculty members, 22 students, and five "others"—were arrested at Stony Brook for participating in the student-led pro-Palestine encampment on campus, one of the many that have sprung up at universities across the country. Stony Brook appears to be the first campus where state law enforcement has gotten involved; on Thursday night, state police made similar sweeps of pro-Palestine encampments, and hundreds more arrests, at SUNY Purchase and SUNY New Paltz. A spokesperson for Stony Brook told Hell Gate that "the decision to call in New York State Troopers was made in a manner consistent with the university's policies."

(We've put out requests for comment on the incident to the state police and the governor's office as well, and will update if they respond.)

Josh Dubnau, a tenured professor who teaches at Stony Brook's anesthesiology and neurobiology departments and runs a research lab on campus, was one of the 29 people arrested. He told Hell Gate he felt compelled to stay with student protesters when he witnessed the way they were being treated by troopers—herded like sheep, chased down like prey, and cuffed when they fell to the ground. "Stony Brook administration, like many other college administrations, their tolerance of free speech is all about control," Dubnau told Hell Gate. The encampment, he said, shifted that power to students—so university administrators cracked down, hard. Dubnau continued: "The phrase they use is that the students can have all the free speech they want, as long as they are willing to submit to the administration's control of the 'time, manner, and location.' And that's only for these students—it's a Palestinian exception." 

We spoke with Dubnau about the atmosphere on Stony Brook's campus prior to the encampment sweep, what he saw and experienced the evening of May 1, and how the repression of student activists is tied to the increasing corporatization of universities.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I'm sure you've seen a few different seasons of protests at Stony Brook. How is this different?

I have never seen anything like what we have now. 

I've been a professor at Stony Brook since 2016. I was actually an undergraduate there in the 1980s and was active in the anti-apartheid protest movement then, against South African apartheid. There were periods when there were Black Lives Matter protests, we've had protests of graduate students for higher pay, union protests against parking fee increases, but I've never seen anything like this.

Even what I remember as a student in the 1980s, protesting against South African apartheid, pales in comparison to this. This feels like what I've read about what the protests were like in the 1960s.

And do you mean that in terms of intensity from the protesters or in terms of police response? 

Both. The intensity of the protests from the students—the energy, the engagement, the rapidity with which it's growing, and then also the pushback and repression from university administration and the police—both the campus police, and as we saw yesterday, state troopers as well. 

There were some reports that pro-Palestine protesters were arrested on campus earlier this month at Stony Brook as well. What happened then?

That's an important backdrop to this. Since October 7, the university has appropriately messaged to acknowledge the trauma and grief in the Jewish community after October 7, yet has never done that to acknowledge the far greater trauma and grief amongst Palestinian community and anyone who feels a tie or connection to Gaza. I think the students really felt that, and that acknowledgement was their original demand. 

Then, they started broadening the demands toward divestment. When Stony Brook students organize a protest, they have to have pre-meetings with Student Affairs where the route they will walk on campus is prescribed, the timing of that, whether or not they can use amplified sound. The students started pushing back against that, and they did that several weeks ago when they entered the administration building which, according to the email from Student Affairs that justified the arrests, said "deviated from the approved route." They went in, they were loud—they had some kind of a megaphone—and they were told they couldn't have amplified sound. They complied with that request, and then they sat down in the lobby of the administrative building, which is a public space during the day, and they were warned that if they didn't leave, they would be arrested. Nine of them were—seven students and a couple of alumni. 

How did that change the atmosphere on campus?

It really elevated the tensions. Since then, the demands have expanded: Pro-Palestine students want those charges dropped, they want the disciplinary action against those protesters dropped. They want transparency on investment in Israel, and they want divestment.

When did the encampment kick off?

Protesters set up the encampment on Tuesday on the Staller Steps. It's a gathering place on the campus—it's terraced grass levels. It's a place where students hang out, play frisbee, eat lunch, sit with their laptops and work. It's a very public space that students use all the time. As faculty, we felt that given the history of students being arrested, we wanted to be there for them, so we tried to disperse ourselves throughout the day during times when we weren't teaching or didn't have other duties. 

As soon as students started to put up tents, university police moved in and told them: "No tents." The students said, "Show us a policy where it says no tents," and they were shown a policy against erecting structures that are attached to the ground. The students argued that a tent isn't a structure and that they wouldn't put stakes in the ground, but they were still told no. 

That first night, 30 or 40 students slept there—faculty, we didn't stay the night, we felt it wasn't our place—and in the middle of the night, it apparently started drizzling. They were sleeping out in sleeping bags without tents, so they started covering themselves with tarps, and the police charged in and said if a tarp is draped over a human body, it creates a structure. This is the level of control of this administration. 

Then, the protest started to grow. By the afternoon, there'd be a hundred students there. They were ordering pizza, it was just a wonderful, very joyous event. They put up signs and flags and they were chanting. Anyone who'd look at that and say it was threatening or disruptive—I just don't understand that. 

When did things escalate?

On Wednesday, the students were told that the Hillel group on campus had reserved the Staller Steps on Thursday at 11 a.m. for their annual barbecue event, which is true—they had arranged it in advance. I think the administration panicked at the idea that they were going to have Jewish students that might support Israel and pro-Palestine students in the same space, and they're just so afraid of the students that I think they decided they couldn't tolerate that. 

Do you think, purely in terms of space, there would have been room for both the encampment and the Hillel barbecue event?

There definitely was room. On Tuesday and Wednesday, there were some student groups that had reserved space on the Staller Steps, and the student protesters coordinated with those groups to say, sure, we'll share the space, we'll go to this side, you go to that side, and it was totally fine. I realize that it might have been more challenging to be totally fine with two groups of students that are really disagreeing about something that's very emotional to both sides—but isn't that what the adults are supposed to do? Couldn't the university have sat down with the student leaders of both groups and figured something out? 

What happened instead?

The administration gave very clear messaging in a letter to Stony Brook 4 Palestine leadership: The pro-Palestine students would have to be gone. When the students heard that, they became afraid that they were going to get arrested in the middle of the night with nobody else there. So they decided they were going to erect tents during the day on Wednesday. 

As soon as they started putting up tents, the university police rushed in very aggressively—manhandling students, pushing and shoving, including a student in a wheelchair. They were grabbing legs of students and trying to drag them, they were tearing tents away. The police pulled out knives and were cutting up the tents, destroying their property so they wouldn't be able to put up the tents again. It was very confrontational. 

What time was this?

Around 3 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. Some panicked university administrators rushed over and they were saying to me and other faculty, "Can you help us de-escalate this?" We looked at them and said, "You de-escalate it. You wanna de-escalate it, tell the police to back off." I think because Newsday and News 12 were there with cameras, they got confused, and the police did back off. 

What happened on Wednesday night?

The students were still there, but the faculty left in the evening. I was at home, I had eaten dinner. But then, maybe around 9:30 p.m., faculty started getting messages from some of the students saying, "There are state troopers here," and they sent us pictures of, you know—with their funny hats? 

So, a few faculty got back in our cars and drove back to campus just to be there, to bear witness. At that point, it had grown—there were 200 students there. The students, again, were beating drums, singing, passing out pizza, and they'd put up five or six tents and people in them were talking or milling around. Very, very peaceful. 

As it got close to 11 p.m., that's when the state troopers charged in. Faculty members had planned to leave afterwards if the students were going to do civil disobedience—but when we saw the escalation, we wanted to stay with the students. Maybe 20 of those 200 students planned to stay even if it meant risking arrest, but when the state troopers showed up, all 200 students came to the center of the Staller Steps—I think they felt instinctively like they wanted to protect their friends. 

Then, there was this moment where it was like, all of a sudden, there's 40 cops running at the students from one direction, and the students would start running away, and then 60 cops would come from around another building. They'd done this strategic, military-style thing like they were herding sheep, chasing the students. Students were screaming. If they tripped, they would get arrested. It was this wild scene where there were, like, 30 students with faculty who were standing near the tents, and these other students who had not planned to do civil disobedience were getting chased around. 

I've done civil disobedience before, but I've never seen the police arrest a peaceful group like this. This was like a military formation. We were a line of people—two faculty, and 20 or so students—linking arms. The police faced us in this maybe 30 across or 50 across and three or four or five deep cluster. Then, all of a sudden, one of them would give a signal and it was like wave after wave of them would charge forward and grab a few students and drag them away. It was very in your face aggressive. Anyone who gave the slightest hint of getting excited or anxious was tossed to the ground and handcuffed there—I saw four or five students doing civil disobedience thrown to the ground, and I've seen videos on social media of other students arrested that way. Maybe because I'm faculty, I wasn't thrown to the ground. 

You were arrested. What happened after?

They took 10 of us to the university police department, because they couldn't handle any more, and the rest were sent to Suffolk County Police detention. For them to write 10 tickets, we had to sit in handcuffs for seven and a half hours. The Suffolk County DA decided that the police should confiscate our cell phones indefinitely as evidence in furtherance of a crime, or something like that. We're talking about a violation that we're charged with, it's not even a misdemeanor—it's like a traffic ticket. The implication is they'll try to break in our phones and get all our social media and everything. That's such an overreach. 

Then, they suspended all the students, and the university police told the faculty members, two tenured professors, that we would be suspended and banned from campus—the police told me not to come to campus, and that I should expect to get an email about it. But I have not gotten official word on that yet. I was on a thesis committee today; I worked at home today, but I went to the thesis committee on Zoom and I met with students as part of my official duties, because I've heard nothing in writing that says I'm banned. 

The union is going to vigorously defend the faculty who're suspended, if we are indeed suspended, and the faculty is going to vigorously defend the students who are suspended and arrested. 

Do you know the status of the students who were taken to Suffolk County detention?

They've all been released. My understanding is they're all banned from campus and suspended. The ones who live in dormitory housing now don't have a home. And Stony Brook is a university where I think over 50 percent of the students are first-generation college students, so a lot of them are on financial aid. There are students who were arrested who are on full-ride financial aid, and now they're worried that, if they're not students in good standing, do they have to give the money back? I don't know what happens. 

What has Stony Brook told the community as a whole about the arrests?

They always send a campus-wide email. The president sent one today that said student protesters were "increasingly hostile toward other students" which, as far as I saw, was just not true. There also has been no violence, no threats of violence, no vandalism, no property destruction. 

Why do you think the state troopers came to Stony Brook's campus to arrest student protesters? 

Here's my thinking: Public higher education has been increasingly corporatized for decades. There are those who think that it is more about parochial education to prepare students to be in the workforce than it is about the intellectual development of wonderful people to be part of our society. Along with that comes a corporate ethos in which the people who run these universities are increasingly non-academic in their thinking—they're more corporate. 

A few years ago, our university president elevated the university chief of police to the title of "vice president for enterprise risk management and chief security officer." If you Google what "enterprise risk management" is, that's a department at a corporation that protects the image and profits of the corporation. They assess risk, and free speech is risky. Because if the free speech is a type of speech that the governor has said is wrong and labels as antisemitic, even though it's not, then that speech according to the risk assessment is a threat to the corporation. That's what I think is going on. 

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

MAGA Loons, Drill Rappers, and Unlikely Voters: The Never-Ending Trump Rally Comes to the South Bronx

"If Trump is here, and he's asking for a second chance, I can't judge that."

May 24, 2024

Finally, NYC Gets the Bird We Deserve

All hail our new beady-eyed queen, Astoria the wild turkey! And more news to take you into the long weekend.

May 24, 2024

Is the NYPD Solving Crimes? Who Knows—Their Last Published Clearance Data Is From 2022

City law requires the NYPD to report its clearance rates quarterly. Under the Adams administration, it just…stopped.

See all posts