News & Politics

Columbia looks to suspend pro-Palestine protesters as House Democrats demand ‘decisive action’

The Ivy League university announced Monday night that it has begun suspending students who refused to leave a pro-Palestine encampment on campus.

Columbia University students and faculty members walk in a picket line around the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on April 29, 2024.

Columbia University students and faculty members walk in a picket line around the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on April 29, 2024. Uzma Afreen

On Monday, the same day that 21 House Democrats wrote to Columbia University’s board of trustees demanding that the school take “decisive action” to end the ongoing pro-Palestine encampment on campus, university officials gave protesters an ultimatum: vacate the encampment by 2 p.m. or face dire consequences, including suspension. Hundreds of students and faculty members coalesced on campus to protect those at the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” amid fears of another police crackdown, but the deadline came and went without any police activity on campus. Columbia later announced that it had begun suspending students, though students in the encampment said that they were not aware of any suspensions.

Rep. Dan Goldman, a Jewish member of Congress who signed on to the letter to the board of trustees, praised Columbia’s more hardball approach to the protests. “After more than one week of fruitless negotiations with leaders of the encampment at Columbia University to disband voluntarily, I’m encouraged that President Shafik has taken decisive action to bring Columbia into compliance with civil rights law, ensure that all students feel safe, and address the unacceptable rise in antisemitism on campus,” he told City & State in a statement. “Everyone has a First Amendment right to free speech, but no one has the right to intimidate, harass or threaten students on campus. Columbia has a legal obligation to protect all of its students, and I’m pleased to see that the University is moving in that direction.”

Things further escalated early Tuesday when a group of pro-palestinian student protesters entered Hamilton Hall around 12:30 a.m., barricading the building's doors with furniture, Politico New York reported. The academic building was among several occupied by students during a 1968 civil rights and anti-Vietnam war protest. 

Final offer

On Monday morning, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik sent out an email saying negotiations failed to yield an agreement and that the university wouldn’t divest from Israel. Within two hours, university officials passed out forms to members of the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” threatening to suspend students unless they vacated the encampment location by 2 p.m. and signed an agreement promising not to violate any university policies until June 2025 or their graduation, whichever is sooner. 

The form warned that Columbia University has “already identified many students in the encampment” and urged protesters to vacate the area as to not “deprive” their fellow students and their families of the upcoming graduate commencement ceremonies scheduled for May 15. The form warned that any students who did not comply would be banned from accessing all campus buildings, including recreational spaces and their own residence halls. “The university will offer an alternative venue for demonstrations after the exam period and commencement have concluded,” it reads. “If the encampment is not removed, we will need to initiate disciplinary procedures because of a number of violations of university policies.” 

Around noon, students in the encampment gathered for an assembly to vote on whether they would stay past 2 p.m. With a show of hands, they overwhelmingly opted to stay. “I want to encourage you to remain mobilized. They've done this before. They've tried to threaten us, scare us into leaving,” one student organizer who asked not to be identified said during the assembly. “The eyes of the nation and the eyes of law are on Columbia. We will not be giving in. We will not give them what they want.”

After student protesters rejected the university’s offer, some wrote over the university’s form with their own message. | Uzma Afreen

University officials have said that they offered to increase transparency into the school’s direct investment holdings and to make investments in health and education in Gaza, student organizers contend that the university has yet to make adequate concessions to protester’s central demand: that the school divest from companies with links to Israel.

“It's crystal clear what they're trying to do. They're trying to give us lip service (and) get us out without actually trying to change anything,” said Aidan Earesi, a first-year masters student. “(Shafik) had no actual plans to divest from Israel … she wants to keep the financial and academic and social investment in Israel.” Earesi said that they were suspended from campus three weeks ago, though they declined to say why. (Three weeks ago, Columbia suspended four pro-Palestinian students for their involvement in an unauthorized event that featured a controversial speaker who is allegedly a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group.)

As the clock hit 2 p.m. and rolled forward, hundreds of additional protesters formed a picket line around the lawn in opposition to the university’s directive. More than 30 faculty members draped in neon orange vests linked arms and formed a wall in front of the camp’s entrance. A few counter-protesters waved Israeli flags into the air. Meanwhile, other pro-Palestinian protesters coalesced outside of the university’s gates at 116th Street and Broadway as New York City Police Department officials looked on.

“We have begun suspending students”

As the afternoon stretched into evening, it appeared increasingly unlikely that Columbia officials would authorize the NYPD to come onto campus on Monday to clear out the encampment like they did on April 18 – a controversial move that sparked uproar nationwide after more than 100 individuals were arrested. (As of Monday, an estimated 1,000 students had been arrested in campus demonstrations across the country.) 

After the police cleared the encampment, students built a new one on an adjacent lawn. More than 50 people arrested during the initial NYPD sweep, many of whom attended Columbia’s sister school Barnard College, were quickly suspended from campus and evicted from their university housing, though most of those suspensions were later reversed. 

Late last week, Shafik and other university officials wrote that bringing police back would be “counterproductive, further inflaming what is happening on campus, and drawing thousands to our doorstep who would threaten our community.” But it is possible that the university will turn to the NYPD once again as the situation becomes more desperate. Roughly two weeks remain until the university’s graduate commencement ceremony, and the encampment is occupying one of the lawns usually used for commencement seating. 

The New York Post reported on Monday that although the university has not yet requested that police return to campus, the NYPD is currently mobilizing officers on Randalls Island in preparation for being asked to make arrests on campus. On Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Adams administration confirmed to City & State that Columbia officials had not asked the NYPD to move in. As of early Tuesday morning, police appear to have still not be called in to crack down on the students who took over Hamilton Hall a little past midnight.

Ben Chang, Columbia University’s vice president for communications, said during a 5 p.m. Zoom press briefing that the school has begun suspending students – though the exact details of the suspensions were unclear. “University representatives engaged in good faith dialogue with the organizers and maintain that dialogue,” Chang told reporters. “We were hopeful and we were disappointed when the student protesters couldn’t reach consensus on the issues under discussion.”

As a result, he said, “We have begun suspending students as part of this next phase of our efforts to ensure safety on our campus.”

Chang’s announcement confused students in the encampment, who told City & State that they were not aware of any students in the encampment who had received suspensions on Monday. Chang declined to provide numbers on the total number of suspensions or clarify whether any suspensions have gone into effect yet for students currently in the encampment.

Politics of protest

The university has been ground zero for elected officials looking to weigh in on the developing situation since the first tents were pitched April 17 – especially as more and more protest encampments have popped up at universities across the country. Progressive New York City Council Members Tiffany Cabán, Alexa Avilés, Shahana Hanif and Sandy Nurse were among the first elected officials to visit the encampment, but many others have done so in the days since, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Ilhan Omar. Gov. Kathy Hochul also visited campus to speak with Shafik and other university leaders, while U.S. Speaker Mike Johnson delivered an address, flanked by New York Republican lawmakers, last Wednesday. 

Pressure has steadily built both inside and outside of the campus gates. On Monday morning, 21 House Democrats sent the letter to the university's board of trustees, which expressed “disappointment that, despite promises to do so, Columbia University has not yet disbanded the unauthorized and impermissible encampment of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish activists on campus” and called on the university to either “act decisively (and) ban the encampment” or resign, according to Axios. 

Meanwhile, a coalition of 185 social justice and religious groups, including the Working Families Party, published their own letter Monday, voicing support for campus protests and urging university officials to stop forcefully cracking down on student-led demonstrations. 

Even the United Nations has weighed in. “I'm hearing disturbing reports that students face suspension if they don’t end their peaceful protests in #Columbiauniversity in the USA. This is a clear violation of their right to peaceful assembly,” Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, wrote on X Monday afternoon.