More than two-thirds of protesters arrested at Columbia and City College released with summonses

The majority of protesters have been released with summonses, but Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is charging 46 Columbia protesters with trespassing and 22 City College protesters with burglary.

Police detained hundreds on Tuesday night and swept the pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University.

Police detained hundreds on Tuesday night and swept the pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University. Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images

There’s a lot of pressure on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

Bragg is already at the center of a political maelstrom as Donald Trump’s criminal trial rolls forward – the first-ever trial of a former U.S. president. And New York’s top court overturned the 2020 conviction of Harvey Weinstein last week, leaving the Manhattan district attorney’s office to retry the case. Now Bragg faces another significant choice: whether to prosecute the many pro-Palestinian demonstrators facing charges as the New York City Police Department looks to snuff out campus protests.

Nearly 2,000 people protesting on U.S. campuses have been arrested since the April 18 police crackdown on the encampment at Columbia University sparked a wave of student activism condemning the actions of the Israeli government against Palestinians in Gaza. More than 520 of those individuals were arrested in New York City – 282 of whom were taken into custody during back-to-back police interventions at Columbia and the City College of New York Tuesday night, according to the NYPD. 

The Manhattan district attorney’s office confirmed Thursday evening that 74 people were arraigned and formally charged, while 16 were hit with a desk appearance ticket – a written order issued by police that requires a person to appear in criminal court at a later date where the case could be dismissed or proceed with charges filed. The remainder were released with summonses – a low-level ticket telling the individual they’ve been charged by a city agency for violating a rule, law or regulation and will need to appear to respond to that charge.

The NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information reported that 48 people were arrested at Columbia on suspicion of charges including 3rd-degree burglary, “hate crime burglary,” criminal mischief and reckless endangerment. But the people arrested have not actually been charged with those offenses. According to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, 46 people were arrested inside Columbia’s Hamilton Hall and have been arraigned on charges of criminal trespassing, a Class B misdemeanor. Another two people were arrested at Columbia and given desk appearance tickets. 

At City College, 22 people were arrested by CUNY Public Safety for allegedly occupying a building. They were later arraigned on charges of 3rd-degree burglary, which is a Class D felony, and obstructing governmental administration. Five others were arrested off campus by the NYPD and arraigned on charges of 2nd-degree assault, a Class D felony, and one person was arraigned on charges of 4th-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a Class A misdemeanor. The district attorney’s office said that as the investigation continues, more criminal charges may be added or existing charges could be downgraded or dropped if mitigating circumstances are found.

Bragg has yet to say how he will handle the many cases.

“We will look carefully at each individual case on our docket and make decisions based on the facts and the law. That will include a thorough review of body cam footage and interviews with witnesses,” Bragg said Wednesday. 

While arrests in New York City have only so far taken place at City College, Columbia, New York University (on April 22) and Fordham University (on May 1), protest encampments have also popped up elsewhere across the state, including the Fashion Institute of Technology, Syracuse University and the University at Buffalo. Protesters have urged their schools to divest from Israeli companies, to bolster financial transparency on all of the university’s direct and indirect investments and to provide amnesty for student protests.  

College officials have hit students with serious consequences over the past couple of days as protesters have chosen to hold their ground in encampments – or for some, took over Hamilton Hall at Columbia early Tuesday morning – despite administrative threats. An unclear number of students have been expelled or suspended for their involvement in protests. 

Whether punishment will go beyond either of those things is up to Bragg, who has the leeway to file or drop charges as he sees fit. Calls for leniency have already begun, as has pressure to come down hard.

“If the DA doesn’t prosecute the bulk of those arrested then the entire negotiation with the campus administration, the entire police enforcement action, and all the national attention on this matter has been an absolute waste of time,” Republican City Council Member Joe Borelli told City & State. “The ball is in his court, and I’m only confident in his shortcomings.” 

The NYC chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America urged New Yorkers to urge Bragg to “ensure full amnesty” for all students. “Campuses are for learning, NOT battlegrounds. Arresting students & allies disrupt education. Email & call NYC reps to urge the DA to grant full amnesty, end lockdowns, & meet student demands to divest from Israeli apartheid,” the organization wrote on X Thursday. 

Spokespeople for City College and Columbia did not respond to a request for comment about whether they’d encourage the district attorney’s office to be lenient to students facing charges. 

There is already some precedent of prosecutors and city attorneys choosing to dismiss charges against protesters on campuses. Travis County District Attorney Delia Garza dismissed charges for the 57 people arrested April 25 in connection with protests at the University of Texas at Austin. (Over 100 additional people have been arrested since then). The prosecutors overseeing the University of New Mexico’s Albuquerque campus and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, have both said in statements that their respective offices aren’t interested in prosecuting people arrested during protests, The Appeal reported.

As Manhattan’s top prosecutor, Bragg faces immense pressure to portray himself as apolitical. Bragg is no stranger to political pressure. Even before bringing criminal charges against Trump, his progressive overhaul of criminal justice policies garnered a wave of criticism from the conservatives and some Democrats. Earlier this year, Bragg weathered national outrage as his office responded to a viral incident in Times Square between migrants and a police officer that escalated into a melee.

Martin Stolar, a Manhattan-based lawyer and the former president of National Lawyers Guild New York City chapter, said that in his experience with Bragg’s office, people who are charged with disorderly conduct or trespassing in nonviolent or civil disobedience protests often end up having their cases dismissed with an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal (A.C.D.). Most of those cases, he said, come through as summonses and end up being dismissed and sealed under the A.C.D. after six months. Even some demonstration cases involving people charged with misdemeanors like resisting arrest or obstructing governmental administration have been resolved with community service or an A.C.D. if they were otherwise nonviolent. 

Ahead of the arrests, New York City Police Commissioner Edward Caban said earlier this week that the protesters who occupied Hamilton Hall at Columbia, who will likely face the most severe charges, may face burglary, criminal mischief and trespassing charges. Those outside in the encampment or elsewhere on campus would likely be charged with smaller misdemeanor offenses like trespassing and disorderly conduct.

The DA’s office doesn’t usually deal with summons cases, but could conceivably choose to step in to dismiss those as well if he wished, according to Stolar. As far as desk appearance tickets and arraignments go, Bragg can either decline to prosecute, offer an A.C.D., or pursue the case.

Stolar said he doubts most will end up being criminally charged. Even if they are convicted of what they are accused of, “they’re not likely to go to jail under any circumstance.”  

“These are not candidates for jail. There’s nobody with guns and drugs and nobody was seriously injured – these are mostly protest arrests,” Stolar said. “Bragg looking at the ultimate outcome of what might be and what kind of damage it might do to a young college student’s career might be more lenient. I would hope that he would be.”