Gaza protests: Police crackdown on Colombia protest sparks campus movement

  • Bernd Debusman Jr. in New York and Emma Vardy in Los Angeles
  • BBC News

image caption, Protests have spread across American university campuses

In the early hours of Wednesday, April 17, a small group of students set up their tents at Columbia University, demonstrating against Israeli military action in Gaza and calling on their university to stop doing business with companies that support the war.

They did so when Columbia's president, Minuch Shafiq, went to Capitol Hill to face a congressional grill about antisemitism on campus and how he has dealt with it.

In a nearly four-hour hearing that Wednesday, she defended the actions she had already taken. Students, he said, “get the message that there are consequences for violating our policies.”

The following afternoon, Columbia's president made a decision that ignited a wildfire of protest at colleges across the United States.

Students at the protest camp trespassed, refused to leave and created a “harassing and intimidating environment” for many of their peers, he said.

She sent in the NYPD.

Soon, officers from America's largest police department, wearing riot gear and using plastic handcuffs, arrested more than 100 students — the first mass arrests on Columbia's campus since Vietnam War protests five decades ago.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, Protesters at Columbia say the recent arrests have encouraged more students to enroll and encourage fellow students at other universities.

There was immediate outrage among the students. The next day, another protest camp was set up a few meters away on a different lawn.

It was much bigger than before, from a small number of tents to overcrowded camps, complete with donated food, live performances and a “security team” at the gate to watch out for trespassers.

A day later, another protest camp was set up at another elite institution, Yale University in Connecticut, 70 miles (112 km) northeast of Columbia.

By the middle of the week, protests had broken out on dozens of campuses across the country, and they continued into the weekend: US police said they ended another protest at Northeastern University in Boston on Saturday, with about 100 people arrested.

Columbia students have sparked a national movement.

Student anger over how Israel is waging war against Hamas has raised a lot of questions for university leaders who are already grappling with heated campus debates about what's happening in the Middle East.

How do they balance protest and freedom of speech with the need to protect other students from harm and abuse? When do they send in the police to enforce university policies, and violent responses are filmed and instantly appear on millions of social media feeds?

video title, Watch: How Gaza Strip Protests Spread Across America

At Yale, police arrived at a protest camp in the center of campus in the early hours of April 22 as many students were still sleeping. About 50 students were arrested after refusing to leave, some locking arms around a flagpole.

“They came very quickly, without any warning, and the police piled into the plaza,” Shisato Kimura, a law student, told the BBC from New Haven.

“It was amazing to see a paramilitary force invited by Yale to come on campus,” he added. We protested peacefully.

American college campuses have been a flashpoint for Gaza war protests since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and taking 253 hostages. More than 34,000 people, most of them women and children, have been killed in Gaza since then, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

But the past 10 days have seen some of the most intense and widespread anti-American protests in six months. Clashes and arrests continued elsewhere — tensions that boiled over after the first Colombia camp was dismantled.

At the University of Texas at Austin, state troopers — some on horseback — held back hundreds of students who occupied the university lawn Wednesday. At Emory University in Atlanta, a female professor was wrestled to the ground by a police officer and a video of her being restrained and handcuffed went viral Thursday.

video title, Gaza protesters clash with police at Emory University

Police have also cracked down on protesters at Emerson College in Boston, George Washington University in Washington DC, New York University and the University of Southern California (USC).

The protest camps are calling on university administrators to “suspend” school payments from institutions they deem linked to Israel's war in Gaza, sever ties with Israeli academic institutions and call for a formal ceasefire.

Some Jewish students and teachers have said they fear for their safety. These concerns were part of what prompted university officials, including Ms. Shafiq, to ​​call the police.

“Students have a right to protest,” said Page Fortna, a political science professor at Columbia. “But they have no right to protest in a way that makes other students feel discriminated against or harassed.”

In interviews this week, Jewish students on several campuses talked about incidents that made them uncomfortable, from slogans and signs supporting the banned terrorist group Hamas to physical confrontations and perceived threats.

Eli Gia, a 22-year-old Jewish student at USC, said the protests left him feeling constantly unsettled and afraid. He began to hide the Star of David that he wore on a chain.

“It's a challenge to feel safe coming to school every day,” he told the BBC. “When you walk on campus, you think, 'What am I going to walk into?' There is a second thought. And 'What am I up against?', and 'Who will come after me?'

Northeastern University officials said some of the protesters used anti-Semitic slogans, which is why they decided to take action on Saturday. The university said the demonstration started as a student protest but outsiders also participated in it.

image source, Good pictures

image caption, Jewish students in schools across the US have reported incidents of anti-Semitism and harassment since the protests began

Many protesters sought to distance themselves from the anti-Semitic incidents and in some cases blamed outside agitators. They say many Jewish students have joined the protests and that attention should be paid to the civilian death toll in Gaza.

As negotiations between institutions and students continue, many demonstrators — and their outside supporters — hope what they see as heavy-handed police tactics will help keep the movement going.

“This is a movement that started with just 70 students,” Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat who has been a vocal critic of the Biden administration's Gaza policy, told the BBC on a visit to Camp Columbia this week.

“This has now spread nationally and internationally because Columbia University decided to crack down on them and violate their First Amendment rights.”

His daughter was one of the Colombia protesters arrested.

Opponent Omar Jager of USC said he believes Columbia is just the beginning of a broader movement. “I think a lot of universities around the country are going to start doing these camps,” he said. “The police escalated the situation.”

For some observers, the protests were a throwback to the 1960s, and demonstrations against American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Marianne Hirsch, a Columbia professor who participated in the protests in the 1960s, told reporters this week that the situation in Gaza — like the Vietnam War — has made it “impossible to continue business as usual.”

image source, Good pictures

image caption, In 1968 Columbia was rocked by student protests against the Vietnam War, and hundreds of students were arrested.

The wave of protests adds to a politically stressful time for President Joe Biden, who as he campaigns for re-election has been criticized by some for his country's support for Israel.

Some Democrats fear thousands of protesters will gather at this summer's national convention in Chicago, where the party will formally nominate him for president. The 1968 conference in Chicago was overshadowed by Vietnam War protests.

Ahmed Hasan, a USC graduate who participated in the rallies this week, said he hopes the student protests will have a broader impact on American attitudes.

“It's always up to the students to tell people this isn't right,” he said, “and we won't stand for it.”

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