It’s been a very long two weeks”: how the Gaza protests changed Columbia By Dan Halpern

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The camp has been cleared. But the faculty of the Ivy League university remains deeply divided

Term had ended at Columbia University. Classes were over, and the provost had announced that final exams would be conducted remotely, so the Manhattan campus was emptying fast. On Thursday a few kids could be seen on a nearby street pushing cardboard boxes filled with framed posters and lamps. The New York Police Department (nypd) had stationed officers at every entrance to the campus, checking the IDs of anyone going in and coming out.

Two weeks earlier, on April 17th, hundreds of students, angry at Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, had pitched tents on the campus’s lawn, and declared it the “Gaza solidarity encampment”. They refused to move until the university agreed to pull out of any investments in companies linked to Israel.

The Columbia students were among the first to set up an encampment, and the idea quickly spread to campuses across the country, from California to Ohio to Georgia. The tenor of the media coverage was reminiscent of war reporting (“Harvard has fallen!”; “Columbia surrenders!”). Republican politicians put pressure on universities to combat what they alleged was rampant antisemitism on campus.

Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, took the controversial decision to send in police, who arrested protesters and cleared the camp. Almost immediately the students returned. On Monday April 29th the administration issued an ultimatum, threatening suspension or worse for anyone refusing to decamp. The students upped the ante, taking over Hamilton Hall, barricading the doors and festooning it with Palestinian flags and banners (including one that read “Intifada”). The students renamed the building “Hind’s Hall”, after Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl believed to have been killed by Israeli gunfire.

On Tuesday night the police sent in riot squads with flashbangs and tactical gear. They arrested 44 people inside the hall (13 of whom, it would turn out, were unaffiliated with the university) and 109 in total. The encampment was over.

In a parking lot around the corner from the campus I saw university staff sorting through an enormous heap of clothes and blankets – the remnants of the camp. On one level, the chaos was over. But many members of Columbia’s faculty are grappling with profound questions raised by the events of the past two weeks. What are the limits of free speech within universities? And who gets to police it? When I asked one faculty member what role he saw for him and his colleagues in the governance of the institution he said: “the old idea that the core of the university is this community of scholars is definitely dead.”

The encampment, in the days before it was disbanded, was a sometimes raucous, sometimes joyful place. When I was there on Monday the university had just delivered the ultimatum ordering students to remove their tents and belongings and abandon their occupation or face suspension. The protesters would, said the university, be offered an alternative venue for the encampment after exams and graduation had taken place.

“It is important for you to know that the University has already identified many students in the encampment,” said the notice. (Indeed, there is no shortage of cameras on the Columbia quad.) Whether the students might be forcibly removed was unaddressed.

Some protesters left the camp, but at least a few dozen remained as the afternoon deadline approached. They sang: “Disclose, divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!” and “We shall, we shall not be moved; just like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” Meanwhile, police buses and trucks with material for barricades idled discreetly a few blocks away.

Outside the gates, locked to deter outsiders, battling factions shouted at each other and for the cameras. Reporters swarmed. There were pro-Palestine groups wearing keffiyehs and waving flags; pro-Israel groups in blue and white; skirmishing pockets of anti-Zionist Jews, Zionist Christians, and assorted New York City lunatics. At one point a Christian country singer with an American flag turned up. From inside the campus the crowds looked like a zombie phalanx, full of brainless hunger, trying to get in.

Inside campus, the crowds were quieter. The singing and dancing continued at a low hum; there was no shouting or screaming or pushing to speak of. People seemed tense. Shafik had said calling in the police again would be “counterproductive”, but everyone was expecting the camp to be stormed any minute.

A group of faculty members wearing orange vests linked arms at the entrance to the encampment, standing between their students and the world which, the professors feared, might be coming to hurt them.

Columbia has a history of activism. In 1968 students protesting against racism and the Vietnam war seized Hamilton Hall, and took a dean hostage. These days the institution celebrates its radical past but back then university leaders called in the police. More than 700 students and staff were arrested and over a hundred were injured. (The dean seems to have been more forgiving: he later wrote law-school references for some of his captors.)

Reinhold Martin, who teaches in the architecture school and is an expert on the history of universities, has been on Columbia’s faculty for 25 years. He thinks that university should be a space that is “separate from the world, and yet very much part of it”, where ideas can be tested. “There may be those who are made very, very uncomfortable by some of the statements people make, and certainly there have been people who have crossed lines of all kinds. But that’s not the point. The point here is that we’re doing what we are here to do.”

Another faculty member admitted that students singing “From the river to the sea”, seen by many as a call to wipe Israel off the map, made him “uncomfortable”. But he was impressed at the young people risking their own interests for what they saw as justice. It didn’t matter that he didn’t entirely agree about what they judged to be just and unjust. “I couldn’t be prouder of them,” he said.

Some of the faculty felt their voices had been sidelined in the administration’s response to the protestors. Ben Orlove, an anthropologist, told me that the faculty had started off with very positive feelings toward Shafik, who began her tenure last autumn. In November, however, they had been disturbed when Shafik suspended two pro-Palestinian groups (including Jewish Voice for Peace) without running the decision past the faculty.

When the Senate Executive Committee, a body made up of faculty members, students and others, explicitly told the administration that it did not approve the presence of nypd on campus in response to protests it was ignored. The committee is now investigating the administration’s handling of events.

Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Modern Arab studies, told me that the university administration was being tone-deaf to the moral outrage that students felt about atrocities, in which their own government was complicit, and which they were witnessing around the clock on their phones. The ensuing chaos shouldn’t be blamed on the students, he argued, but on “the craven, cowardly, spineless lawyers and administrators and trustees and donors who run our universities.”

But academics weren’t united on this, Khalidi said. “The faculty’s divided. If you go to the professional schools, the law school, the business school – there, the faculty is not supportive of the students. In the arts and sciences, the overwhelming majority of the faculty are, or at least very critical of the university’s handling of the issue.”

Certainly, some faculty members felt that the disruption needed to end, and a vocal minority saw a need to clamp down on what they saw as threatening behaviour on campus. Some protesters have labelled Jewish students “Zionists”, and intimidated them.

Vincent Blasi is a law professor and a scholar of the First Amendment. Blasi, who joined the faculty in 1983, explained to me that a basic distinction in First Amendment law is between regulations based on language that is thought to be dangerous or transgressive, and regulations governing when, where and how this language is used. Generally, authorities have much more leeway to regulate the latter.

Whether the language of the students at the encampment was sufficiently transgressive to be dangerous was still being debated. But the issue of time, manner and place seemed uncomplicated to Blasi. “Maybe you can have a claim under proper principles of academic freedom to be able to commandeer [a] physical space for a limited period,” Blasi said. “But not day after day, until your demands are met. There’s no respectable First Amendment argument for that, or even academic-freedom argument for that.”

Some staff simply regretted the impact of the protests on their students’ education. “One of my students was supposed to have her work discussed in class today,” one professor told me on Tuesday. “She’s in jail right now.”

The ousted demonstrators have, naturally, declared victory: the protests have spread to dozens of universities in America, and to more in Britain, France, Canada and Australia. At UCLA, police dispersed protesters with rubber bullets. For now the display of force, and the winding down of the university year, appear to have deterred people from further action.

One aspect of student life has been galvanised by recent events. The best way to keep up on what was happening all over Columbia was the student-run radio station, wkcr, whose roving reporters had the entire campus covered. A remarkably smooth operation, the station moved from update to update seamlessly – no editorialising, no hysteria, just good, factual reporting.

On Tuesday afternoon, as they waited to see what the police would do, the student reporters seemed finally to have a moment to take a breath. There was, for the first time in many days, a moment of dead air. Eventually one reporter said to another: “It’s been a very, very long two weeks.” 

Dan Halpern is a feature writer for 1843 magazine

photographs: c.s. muncy, bing guan / the new york times / eyevine, mark ostow, derek french, lev radin / eyevine, john garry / mega, getty images, shutterstock

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Disclaimer: It’s been a very long two weeks”: how the Gaza protests changed Columbia By Dan Halpern - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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