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News / Nation & World

Columbia University extends talks with Gaza war protesters, averting another confrontation

Columbia University says that it is making “important progress” with pro-Palestinian student protesters who set up a tent encampment and the university has extended a deadline to clear out

By NICK PERRY and KAREN MATTHEWS, NICK PERRY and KAREN MATTHEWS, Associated Press
Published: April 24, 2024, 8:26am

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University averted another confrontation between students and police early Wednesday, but the situation remained tense with campus officials saying it would continue talks with pro-Palestinian protesters for another 48 hours.

University President Minouche Shafik had set a midnight deadline to reach an agreement on clearing an encampment of protesters on campus but the school extended negotiations, saying it was making “important progress.” Student protesters had committed to dismantling and removing a significant number of tents, the New York Ivy League university said in a statement.

On Wednesday morning, the encampment appeared calm and a little smaller than the previous day.

Standoffs also persisted at other universities across the country, including California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, where protesters this week used furniture, tents, chains and zip ties to block a building’s entrance and barricade themselves inside. And new student encampments continued to pop up, including at Brown University in Rhode Island.

Police first tried to clear the encampment at Columbia last week, when they arrested more than 100 protesters. But the move backfired, acting as an inspiration for other students across the country to set up similar encampments and motivating protesters at Columbia to regroup.

Students protesting Israel’s war with Hamas are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its monthslong conflict. Dozens have been arrested on charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus.

The reprieve at Columbia came hours before Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson planned to visit and meet with Jewish students to address antisemitism on college campuses.

Columbia said it had agreed with protest representatives that only students would remain at the encampment and they would make it welcoming, banning discriminatory or harassing language.

Elsewhere, at the University of Minnesota, Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar attended a protest late Tuesday, hours after nine protesters were arrested on the campus when police took down an encampment in front of the library. Hundreds had rallied in the afternoon to demand their release.

Omar’s daughter was among the demonstrators arrested at Columbia last week.

Also Tuesday night, police arrested more than 200 protesters blocking traffic in Brooklyn, near the home of Sen. Chuck Schumer, during a non-college demonstration demanding a permanent cease-fire in Gaza The protest was organized by Jewish Voice for Peace on the second night of Passover.

At Cal Poly Humboldt, protesters chanted, “We are not afraid of you!” before officers in riot gear pushed into them at the building’s entrance, video shows. Student Peyton McKinzie said she was walking on campus Monday when she saw police grab one woman by the hair and another student with their head bandaged for an injury.

“I think a lot of students are in shock about it,” she said.

Three students were arrested, according to a statement from the school, which shut down the campus through Wednesday. Students had occupied a second campus building Tuesday.

Students at some protests were hiding their identities. At an encampment of about 40 tents at the heart of the University of Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, almost every student wore a mask, which was handed to them when they entered.

Student protesters declined to identify themselves to reporters, saying they feared retribution by the university. Organizers of the protest said some students who had participated in prior protests at Michigan had been doxxed and punished. But some students passing by shouted at the protesters to remove their masks and show their faces.

The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated the protests, but are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline, citing safety concerns.

At New York University this week, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges.

More than 40 protesters were arrested Monday at an encampment at Yale University.

Harvard University in Massachusetts has tried to stay a step ahead of protests by locking most gates into its famous Harvard Yard and limiting access to those with school identification.

Literature doctoral student Christian Deleon said he understood why the Harvard administration may be trying to avoid protests but said there still has to be a place for students to express what they think.

“We should all be able to use these kinds of spaces to protest, to make our voices heard,” he said.

Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said college leaders face extremely tough decisions because they have a responsibility to ensure people can express their views, even when others find them offensive, while protecting students from threats and intimidation.

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