Albany Agenda

Hochul says alleged Columbia stink spray attack is ‘not acceptable,’ has no plans to visit students at this time

The governor touted action on hate crimes Thursday in Manhattan.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado had an interfaith roundtable to discuss hate crimes Thursday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and Lt. Gov. Antonio Delgado had an interfaith roundtable to discuss hate crimes Thursday. Rebecca C. Lewis

Days after it occurred, Gov. Kathy Hochul said she has no plans to meet with Columbia students who say they were sprayed with a putrid-smelling chemical during a pro-Palestine demonstration on campus last week. However, Hochul said she hopes that the perpetrator is charged “at minimum” with assault depending on the outcome of a police investigation. 

After participating in a peaceful “divestment now” demonstration on Jan. 19 amid Israel’s devastating besiegement of the Gaza Strip, multiple students say they noticed a sickening smell on their bodies and clothes. Several sought medical attention for physical symptoms associated with the alleged spray attack. After initially emphasizing that the demonstration was unsanctioned, Columbia officials have since said the university is working with law enforcement to investigate the incident.

When asked about the incident at Columbia, which the New York City Police Department is investigating as a potential hate crime, Hochul first highlighted the general increase in hate crimes the state has seen. “There are so many, sadly, so many examples to choose from,” Hochul said after mentioning the rise in hate crimes against LGBTQ people and Asian Americans. She said that she’s “very familiar” with the incident, but is waiting for the results of the NYPD investigation. “They’re doing the right thing to find out exactly what happened and get all the facts,” Hochul said. “And if necessary, I want the perpetrator charged with a hate crime – or at minimum some form of assault – because that’s not acceptable.” Federal law enforcement officials are also investigating the incident, according to Columbia.

Hochul also said she does not have any plans at this time to meet with students who are victims of the alleged attack, which led some to seek medical care as a result of exposure to a chemical agent. “Sadly, now with probably tens of thousands of hate crime victims across the state, will I try to meet with everybody? It’s a laudable goal,” Hochul said. “I will attempt to do so, but I don’t know that there are plans to do that at this time.”

The governor’s remarks came after a press conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan focused on initiatives in her budget regarding hate crimes and public safety. She touted a proposal to expand the list of charges eligible to be prosecuted as a hate crime and announced new grant funding for security for nonprofits and community organizations at risk of hate crime attacks. Hochul did not explicitly mention this high-profile incident on a college campus, despite talking about other hate crimes during her prepared remarks. That included threats of violence against Jewish students at Cornell University in November, when a student anonymously threatened to bring a gun to the kosher dining hall to shoot and kill Jews. “I'll never forget when I went to Cornell and I sat with these Jewish students who had just been traumatized,” Hochul said at the Thursday press conference. “I said, ‘What can I do for you?’ And they said, ‘Well, we need security.’”

Hochul has made safety on college campuses a priority since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas against Israel led to an increase in hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim New Yorkers. In addition to visiting Cornell and speaking repeatedly about the incident there, Hochul ordered a review of antisemitism and discrimination policies at the City University of New York.

The NYPD has not released information on any suspects in the Columbia attack, but students have alleged that two former Israeli soldiers who attend Columbia are the likely perpetrators. Students who attended the protest, which included Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim students, have said they believe they were sprayed with a diluted form of a chemical called “Skunk.” It was originally developed by an Israeli company and used by the Israeli military as a form of crowd control in the West Bank since at least 2008. In addition to the putrid smell that has lasted for days, students have reported physical symptoms including lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting. 

Few New York officials have weighed in on the incident yet aside from socialist lawmakers, including Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, who is Muslim, and state Sen. Julia Salazar, a former Columbia student. They condemned the alleged attack, as did Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who is not a socialist. No other officials who spoke at the Thursday press conference on hate crimes, which included Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, mentioned the alleged attack.