Hundreds of students occupy Columbia University in solidarity with Gaza

Students stage an occupation the same day as Columbia’s President appears before congress in so-called antisemitism hearing

April 17, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
Columbia students stage outdoor occupation at 4 a.m. on April 17

At 4 am on April 17, hundreds of Columbia University students began to set up a “Gaza solidarity encampment” on the main lawn of campus, pledging to stay until the University divests from Israel. This historic occupation was coordinated by various student organizations such as the coalition Columbia University Apartheid Divest, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, and Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace. The action was inspired by the historic 1968 occupation of Columbia’s Hamilton Hall by students in protest against racism and the Vietnam War. 

“The Gaza Solidarity Encampment will remain until Columbia University divests all finances, including the endowment, from corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine,” student organizers wrote in a press release. “We demand they ensure further accountability with complete transparency for all of Columbia’s financial investments.”

The encampment began the same day as Columbia’s President, Minouche Shafik, is at a congressional hearing being grilled by members of the US House of Representatives over accusations of anti-semitism on campus. 

A similar congressional hearing was held in December involving the Presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Due in part to their unwillingness to state that students would be expelled for their support for Palestine, the Presidents of Harvard and UPenn were forced to step down after a massive public pressure campaign, launched by the right-wing

In the December hearing, the question of whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would result in disciplinary action by the three universities stumped the presidents, ultimately resulting in their demise. The presidents found themselves unable to answer in the affirmative without implying that all students who engaged in pro-Palestine protest could be suspended, as even slogans such as “from the river to the sea” were implicated by Congress members as “calling for the genocide of Jews.” 

In this hearing, Shafik is signaling that she has learned from her predecessors, and seems far more willing to throw the book at both students and professors who support Palestine. When asked the same question, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Columbia’s code of conduct?” the witnesses from Columbia’s administration did not hesitate to answer: “yes, it does.”

Shafik called out three pro-Palestine professors by name at this hearing: Joseph Andoni Massad, Katherine Franke, and Mohamed Abdou, revealing after pressure from Zionist hawk Elise Stefanik that Massad and Franke were under investigation for “discriminatory remarks” and that Abdou “will never work at Columbia again.”

Columbia has made headlines for its repression of student organizations throughout the Gaza genocide, including its suspension of both Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine and Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace. Earlier this month, students held a massive rally on campus following the suspension and eviction of several students for hosting an unauthorized event on Palestine. Columbia’s crackdown has come in the context of repression by several universities across the country of pro-Palestine organizing, which include Pomona College sending in police officers to arrest 19 students staging a protest and Vanderbilt University expelling three students who participated in an occupation of the hallway outside of the Chancellor’s office.

As of this writing, the students continue to hold their occupation of the main lawn, despite significant threats from the University administration and the New York Police Department. Six hours into the occupation, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine reported that the administration mobilized the NYPD against students, who barricaded entrances to the encampment. 

Responding to a call from students, protesters from outside of Columbia have shown up en masse to defend those staging the occupation. Columbia has used security guards and NYPD to essentially place the campus on lockdown. Police have attempted to squeeze protesters into a small barricaded pen, despite the sidewalk outside of the university being public. NYPD has placed special restrictions on the media, essentially violating the right to freedom of the press.

Meanwhile, on campus, university officials appeared to try to persuade the students to abandon their encampment, to no avail. Students responded to a Barnard College official who tried to persuade them to disperse or “face sanction” by chanting “Hell no!”

University officials also distributed notices to students participating in the encampment, listing “important information for students and others who may be engaged in disruption of an event at Columbia.” The notice threatened the students with suspension for the rest of the semester for engaging in protest.

As of this writing, there have been no arrests or sweeps of the encampment, although at many moments, as NYPD and campus officials have closed in, arrests have appeared to be imminent.