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Columbia Officials Said They Had ‘No Choice’ But to Call the Police to Clear Protest

Exactly 56 years to the day after the 1968 student occupation at Columbia University was violently cleared by the New York Police Department, hundreds of police officers moved into the Manhattan campus on Tuesday night to quell a different kind of antiwar protest.

Dozens of pro-Palestinian demonstrators were arrested as police officers entered Columbia’s main campus, which was on lockdown, and cleared Hamilton Hall of a group who had broken in and occupied it the night before.

It was a dizzying and, to many students and faculty, disturbing 24 hours on campus.

Last time, students were protesting the Vietnam War and Columbia’s plans to expand its campus into Harlem. This time, students were protesting the Israeli offensive in Gaza that has killed about 34,000 people, according to health officials there, and trying to force the university to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

But the students’ tactics were the same: By escalating their protest to the point where the university was unable to function, students forced the hand of administrators, who brought in the police to arrest them. Both times, the students had occupied Hamilton Hall.

The dozens of arrests on Tuesday were the culmination of two weeks of intense turmoil on Columbia’s campus.

Tensions over pro-Palestinian demonstrations were already high when Nemat Shafik, the Columbia University president, went to Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional committee on April 17 about antisemitism on campus. Then, while she was in Washington, a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators set up a large tent encampment in front of Butler Library on the university’s main quad to demand that the university divest from Israel.

They labeled the area their Gaza Solidarity Encampment and declared it a liberated zone, directly quoting the 1968 protests.

Dr. Shafik, still in Washington, declared in a letter to the police the next day that those protests were “a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University,” though by all accounts, the encampment had been nonviolent.

As hundreds of students and other onlookers watched and rallied in support of the encampment, rows of police officers in riot gear entered campus just after 1 p.m. At least 108 students were arrested. But some of the hundreds of supporters who remained simply moved to the next lawn and started a new encampment.

Nearly two weeks later, on Monday, a faction of the protesters decided to escalate things further, after a breakdown in negotiations with Columbia and as the university began to suspend students who had not cleared the encampment by an afternoon deadline.

That night, the student protesters from the encampment, fortified by hundreds of other pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had arrived late that evening, divided into groups. One group went to Hamilton Hall.

The coalition organizing the encampment, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, said the occupiers were an “autonomous subgroup” made up of “students who felt betrayed by the university and their stubbornness to engage in negotiations,” said Mahmoud Khalil, a lead negotiator for the student coalition.

About 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, protesters smashed a window to gain entry to Hamilton Hall and piled up barricades to block the doors. A crowd of students cheered. The protesters unfurled a banner renaming the building “Hind’s Hall” in honor of Hind Rajab, a 6-year-old Palestinian girl who was killed in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

About 12 hours passed with the campus in near complete lockdown. Then, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams held a news conference with top police officials and said the police believed that the takeover of the campus building was most likely the result of guidance from “professional outside agitators.”

“We are seeing the tactics changing in a way that is endangering public safety,” said the police commissioner, Edward Caban. Mayor Adams added that protesters should leave before the situation on campus escalated. “This must end now.”

Last Friday, Dr. Shafik had said it would be counterproductive to bring the police back to campus, given how doing so had only led to more protests, both at Columbia and on campuses around the nation. But within an hour of Mayor Adams’s announcement, large clusters of police officers in riot gear and with plastic handcuffs on their belts began massing outside the university gates.

Hundreds of officers began entering the campus just after 9 p.m. From the dorms above, there were screams of “Shame on you!”

Inside the campus gates, the police split into two groups. One group encircled the main encampment on the West Lawn, where more than 100 tents remained, searching each tent with flashlights. The other group headed toward Hamilton Hall. “Go to dorms or leave the premises,” the police told bystanders on campus, blocking most from viewing the raid.

Outside the campus, police officers had pulled a truck alongside Hamilton Hall and extended a ladder to a second-story window. About 9:30 p.m., a column of about 30 officers began crossing the ladder and climbing into the building through a window.

Within about 10 minutes, officers brought the first student to the campus gates, the student’s hands bound with plastic ties.

It was unclear what had happened inside the building, but students who had been arrested filed away from campus and were loaded onto buses without resistance. There were initial reports of some police violence against students just outside the building that could not immediately be verified.

By about 10 p.m., the operation was winding down. Officers removed banners reading “Student Intifada” and “Free Palestine” that had hung on the building’s exterior.

Dr. Shafik said in a statement: “We regret that protesters have chosen to escalate the situation through their actions. After the university learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalized and blockaded, we were left with no choice.”

She said that Columbia public safety personnel had been forced out of the building during the occupation and that a member of the university’s facilities staff had been threatened. “We will not risk the safety of our community or the potential for further escalation,” she said.

The university, she said, had determined by the morning that this was a law enforcement matter, and echoing the police, she said that she believed “the group that broke into and occupied the building is led by individuals who are not affiliated with the university.”

She and police officials did not specify who those individuals were.

Columbia’s graduation is scheduled for May 15, and Dr. Shafik has said she does not want student protesters to escalate their actions a third time. To deter them, she included an additional request in her letter to the police on Tuesday asking them to “retain a presence on campus through at least May 17, 2024, to maintain order and ensure encampments are not reestablished.”

Olivia Bensimon, Karla Marie Sanford, Eryn Davis, Maia Coleman, Anna Betts, and Connor Michael Greene contributed reporting.

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