NATIONAL NEWS

It began with defiance at Columbia. Now students nationwide are upping their Gaza war protests

Apr 23, 2024, 4:54 AM

NEW YORK (AP) — What began last week when Columbia University students refused to end their protest against Israel’s war with Hamas had turned into a much larger movement by Tuesday as students across the nation set up encampments, occupied buildings and ignored demands to leave.

Protests had been bubbling for months but kicked into a higher gear after more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s upper Manhattan campus were arrested Thursday. Dozens more protesters have been arrested at other campuses since, and many now face charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct.

With tensions at Columbia continuing to run high and some students afraid to set foot on the campus, officials said the Ivy League school will switch to hybrid learning for the rest of the semester, which will be finished by the end of next week.

At nearby New York University, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody late Monday and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said police officers were hit with bottles and other objects at some of this week’s protests.

In Connecticut, police arrested 60 protesters — including 47 students — Monday at Yale University, after they refused to leave an encampment on a plaza at the center of campus.

Yale President Peter Salovey said protesters had declined an offer to end the demonstration and meet with trustees. After several warnings, school officials determined “the situation was no longer safe,” so police cleared the encampment and made arrests.

In the Midwest on Tuesday, a demonstration at the center of the University of Michigan campus had grown to nearly 40 tents, and nine anti-war protesters at the University of Minnesota were arrested after police took down an encampment in front of the library. Hundreds rallied to the Minnesota campus in the afternoon to demand their release.

On the West Coast, California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, announced that its campus would be closed through Wednesday after demonstrators occupied a building Monday night. Three protesters were arrested. Classes were to be conducted remotely, the school said on its website.

Since the war in Gaza began, colleges and universities have struggled to balance safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated protests but are now doling out more heavy-handed discipline.

Harvard University in Massachusetts has tried to stay a step ahead of protests by locking most gates into its famed Harvard Yard and limiting access to those with school identification. The school has also posted signs that warn against setting up tents or tables on campus without permission.

Literature Ph.D. student Christian Deleon said he understood why the Harvard administration may be trying to avoid protests but said there still has to be a place for students to express what they think.

“We should all be able to use these kinds of spaces to protest, to make our voices heard,” he said.

Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said college leaders faced extremely tough decisions because they had a responsibility to ensure people could express their views, even when others found them offensive.

“But they also need to protect students from targeted harassment, threats and intimidation,” he said. “And sometimes that line can seem like a gray one.”

The New York Civil Liberties Union cautioned universities against being too quick to call in law enforcement in a statement Tuesday.

“Officials should not conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism or use hate incidents as a pretext to silence political views they oppose,” said Donna Lieberman, the group’s executive director.

Leo Auerbach, a student at the University of Michigan, said the differing stances on the war hadn’t led to his feeling unsafe on campus but he has been fearful of the “hateful rhetoric and antisemitic sentiment being echoed.”

“If we’re trying to create an inclusive community on campus, there needs to be constructive dialogue between groups,” Auerbach said. “And right now, there’s no dialogue that is occurring.”

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, physics senior Hannah Didehbani said protesters were inspired by those at Columbia.

“Right now there are several professors on campus who are getting direct research funding from Israel’s ministry of defense,” she said. “We’ve been calling for MIT to cut those research ties.”

Protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, which had an encampment of about 30 tents Tuesday, were also inspired by Columbia’s demonstrators, “who we consider to be the heart of the student movement,” said law student Malak Afaneh.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik said in a message to the school community Monday that she was “deeply saddened” by what was happening on the campus, where some Jewish students say the criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson planned a trip to visit Jewish students at the university on Wednesday and address antisemitism on college campuses in a press conference.

Columbia has a history of protest, most notably in 1968, when hundreds of students angry about racism and the Vietnam War occupied five campus buildings. After a week, a thousand police officers swept in and cleared them out, making 700 arrests. The Associated Press reported at the time that 100 students and 15 police officers were injured.

Campus protests began after Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel, when militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. During the ensuing war, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and noncombatants but says at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.

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Perry reported from Meredith, New Hampshire. Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Triangle, Virginia; Larry Lage in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Steve LeBlanc in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dave Collins in Hartford, Connecticut; Jim Salter in O’Fallon, Missouri; Haven Daley in San Francisco; and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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It began with defiance at Columbia. Now students nationwide are upping their Gaza war protests