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News / Nation & World

Protesters take over Columbia University building in escalation of Israel-Hamas war demonstrations

The Columbian
Published: April 30, 2024, 10:50am

NEW YORK — Dozens of protesters took over a building at Columbia University on Tuesday, barricading entrances and unfurling a Palestinian flag from a window in an escalation of demonstrations against the Israel-Hamas war on college campuses nationwide. The school promised they would face expulsion.

The occupation at the campus in New York — where protesters had shrugged off an earlier ultimatum to abandon a tent encampment Monday or be suspended — unfolded as other universities stepped up efforts to end the protests. Police swept through some campuses, leading to confrontations and arrests. In rarer instances, university officials and protest leaders struck agreements to restrict the disruption to campus life.

And as cease-fire negotiations appeared to gain steam, it wasn’t clear whether those talks would inspire an easing of campus protests.

Protesters on Columbia’s Manhattan campus locked arms early Tuesday and carried furniture and metal barricades to Hamilton Hall, among several buildings that were occupied during a 1968 civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protest. Protest organizers posted on Instagram soon after midnight urging people to protect the encampment and join them at Hamilton Hall. A “Free Palestine” banner hung from a window.

On social media Tuesday, the protest group CU Apartheid Divest called the building Hind’s Hall, honoring a young girl who was killed in Gaza under Israeli fire.

“Students occupying the building face expulsion,” Columbia spokesperson Ben Chang said in a statement Tuesday. He said the university had given protesters a chance to leave peacefully and finish the semester, but that those who didn’t agree to the terms were being suspended — restricted from all academic and recreational spaces, allowed only to enter their residences, and, for seniors, ineligible to graduate.

“Protesters have chosen to escalate to an untenable situation — vandalizing property, breaking doors and windows, and blockading entrances — and we are following through with the consequences we outlined yesterday,” he said.

A CU Apartheid Divest spokesperson said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that some students recently learned they had been suspended for protesting. She declined to give her name but said she is a Columbia graduate student who has been suspended and is not allowed back on campus.

She stressed that she was not a representative of the students who seized the administration building, but pledged that their commitment wouldn’t waver, despite the risk to their educations and careers.

“We are willing to take on an extremely minor amount of risk compared to what the heroic people of Gaza are dealing with every single day,” she said.

Later, the tent encampment was quiet and nearly empty. A small band of protesters chanted behind the university’s locked gates.

Access to the campus was limited to students living in the residential buildings and essential employees, with one access point into and out of campus. New York Police Department Chief Jeffrey Maddrey said officers won’t enter Columbia’s campus without the college administration’s request or an imminent emergency.

Among students suspended by Columbia on Tuesday was Mahmoud Khalil, a lead negotiator before talks with the administration broke down over the weekend. His suspension letter — which he shared with The Associated Press — said he had refused to leave the encampment after prior warnings. Khalil said he had abided by the university’s demand to vacate the lawn by the Monday afternoon deadline.

Protesters have insisted they will remain in the hall until the university agrees to three demands: divestment, financial transparency and amnesty.

Ilana Lewkovitch, a self-described “leftist Zionist” student at Columbia, said it’s been hard to concentrate on school for weeks, amid calls for Zionists to die or leave campus. Lewkovitch, who identifies as Jewish, said she wished the current pro-Palestinian protests were more open to people like her who criticize Israel’s war policies but believe there should be an Israeli state.