Columbia Students Take Over Campus in “Gaza Solidarity Encampment”

More than 100 students protested outside Butler Library on the Columbia University campus in New York City on Wednesday morning, April 17, amid heavy New York Police Department (NYPD) deployment outside the school gates. Students pitched dozens of tents on the lawn in front of the library starting at 4am, demanding complete university divestment from companies and institutions that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the ongoing war on Gaza, which a number of human rights organizations, including a United Nations Special Rapporteur, have termed a genocide. 

Protest art decorated the lawn around the green tents as students chanted and sang.

“Building on over 60 years of anti-apartheid struggles around the world, and specifically on this campus, we have created this encampment in honor of the martyrs in Gaza, following in the footsteps of all those before us,” Catherine Elias, a graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs, told Hyperallergic

“Hundreds of students have taken part in this action to de-occupy Columbia and to demand that the university finally acknowledge the overwhelming democratic will of its student body to divest fully and completely from Israeli apartheid and colonization of Palestine,” Elias continued.

Last November, Columbia leadership suspended the school’s chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, two advocacy groups, following a mass walkout and what they claimed was an “unauthorized action” on the campus lawn. During that demonstration, students and staff urged the university to publicly for a ceasefire; cancel its Tel Aviv Global Center; end the dual-degree program between Tel Aviv University and Columbia University; and divest from investments in companies such as Caterpillar and Doosan Infracore, which manufacture equipment allegedly used to raid Palestinian homes in Israeli settlements.

This sit-in today comes at the heels of at least four students being suspended and evicted by Columbia “without due process,” according to the students protesting. As the action unfolded, Columbia President Minouche Shafik simultaneously disclosed in a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill that the university had fired Professor Mohamed Abdou for allegedly expressing support for Hamas after the October 7 attack. 

Around 10am, campus public safety staff began to prevent additional students and faculty from entering the lawns. When asked by Hyperallergic whether a reason could be provided, a public safety officer who refused to share their name declined to answer. 

The Office of the President of Columbia University did not respond to a request for comment.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani of the school’s Anthropology Department said he was not surprised. “They’re carrying out orders from above and it’s no different from various administrative decrees that have been put in place over the last few weeks and months,” he said. 

Mamdani noted that while he has been teaching at Columbia since the 1990s, he has never experienced a reaction like this from the administration before. “I think it’s a mix [of reasons] — partly inexperience, partly a sense of opportunism, they see an opportunity where they can do what they have waited to do.” 

But soon after, students and faculty were let in. Mamdani addressed the students, giving a history of anti-apartheid movements in Columbia in his speech as the crowd cheered on. 

When asked how long the students were planning to stay, Elias responded, “until Columbia meets our demands.” 

“Or more likely … until they brutalize and violently attack students and force us to leave,” she lamented.

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