Reporter’s Notebook: Police, Campus Protests and Questions of Free Speech

flags of Palestine and Israel painted on cracked wall
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

The scene in New York at Columbia University April 30 was hard to watch and harder to fathom. On April 29, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik issued a deadline to pro-Palestinian protesters who had set up an encampment several weeks earlier to agree to vacate the encampment or be suspended, lose their semester and if graduating, lose that right.

The majority of protesters acceded, but several hundred others did not. Refuting claims of antisemitism by protesters, Seuda Polat, a Columbia University graduate student, said during a press conference Monday, “We will not be moved by these intimidation tactics….There has been no violence on this encampment. Students from diverse backgrounds have shared their religious observances together. We’ve celebrated Passover, we’ve celebrated shabbat twice. This is a place of community, of community learning, not violence.”

By nightfall April 30, rhetoric on both sides had ended as hundreds of NYPD officers in full riot gear were outside the campus gates. The atmosphere, according to student-run radio station WKCR-FM, was tense, the images from student journalists stunning. The gravity of the moment — heavily armed police about to lay siege on unarmed students protesting a war — was palpable on the broadcast.  

By midnight, several dozen students had been zip-tied, arrested and loaded onto a bus for transport.

Protests Spread — Along with Police Violence

In recent weeks, escalated by the targeted killing of aid workers for the World Central Kitchen in Gaza by Israeli forces last month, students on campuses nationwide have begun to make demands on their administrations to divest of their holdings in Israel and any links to corporations or donors who support the sale of munitions to Israel. 

While the Columbia encampment and the protests and counter protests outside the school’s gate have been the focal point of the pro-Palestinian protest movement and by far the largest and most expansive, other such encampments made news because the administrations were far less accommodating than President Shafik’s.

At the University of Texas, Austin, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott sent in police in riot gear. At Emory University in Atlanta, Economics professor Dr. Caroline Fohlin asked police who were violently restraining a student, “What are you doing?” and police turned on her, throwing her to the ground, slamming her head against the concrete walkway and handcuffing her. Fohlin, who is married to the Dean of Admissions, was charged with assaulting police.

Also at Emory, Dr. Noelle McAfee, Chair of the Philosophy Department at the university, was led away in handcuffs from the protest at the college by a masked police officer, calling out to a student to please contact her department.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, police tear gassed students on April 29. At Arizona State University, a campus police officer removed a hijab from a protester’s head during her arrest. Three other students made the same complaint.

Anti-Israel Anger Rising

Campus unrest over the war has been simmering throughout the nearly seven months since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war on Hamas after the violent massacre at kibbutzim and a music festival for young people on Oct. 7, which was the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, marking the end of the high holidays. It was a sleepy day in which no one could have imagined the scenes of torture, murder, arson and kidnapping that occurred in a matter of hours. Some 1,200 people were killed, including children and infants, disabled and elderly. Within 24 hours, Netanyahu announced all food, water and electricity would be cut off to Gaza and the war began with the bombing of the territory.  

The initial global response was support of Israel, with President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken immediately offering their help. But within weeks, the levels of seemingly indiscriminate retaliatory strikes began to shift the narrative. Civilians were being killed en masse. Apartment buildings, schools and churches were targeted. The images on TV news were stark and harrowing with bodies everywhere, many of them children. The overpopulation of Gaza added to the mayhem as bombs fell night and day. 

As these scenes became more prevalent, the horrors of Oct. 7 began to recede in the consciousness of American viewers. On campuses nationally, tension began to appear. Three Palestinian American college students were shot in Vermont. A Palestinian-American boy was killed and his mother injured after their landlord stabbed them because they were Muslim. A student at Cornell threatened to rape and kill Jewish students and shoot up the college.

Antisemitism — never far from the surface of national isms — rose exponentially. A hearing in the House on antisemitism on college campuses with three college presidents from Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and MIT led to the resignations of two of them when they failed to address the issue of genocide of Jews.

So when the encampments began to appear on campuses last month, it seemed a natural — albeit concerning — trajectory.  

Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

The iconic lesbian writer and theorist bell hooks wrote, “The political core of any movement for freedom in the society has to have the political imperative to protect free speech.”

That question about speech and what is free and what is harmful has roiled these campus movements since last fall. Pro-Palestinian students have torn down posters of the hostages being held by Hamas. Many Jewish students have said they don’t feel safe on campuses as chants of “from the river to the sea” — what many consider a genocidal statement about abolishing Israel — became more prevalent. 

Last week, Khymani James — a Black queer student at Columbia and one of the lead student organizers behind the protests — came under fire for a video from January in which James said he believed “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” He also said people should “be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.” James had a disciplinary hearing at the school, and agreed to step away from the encampment, but the video went viral and even President Biden responded to it.

On the opposite end of that is the fact that many Jewish students have joined the protests and the encampments. Columbia’s encampment held a Seder at the beginning of Passover attended by 400 students. On Sunday, Rabbi Linda Holtzman — the first ordained woman rabbi in the U.S. — who is also a lesbian, held a Seder at the University of Pennsylvania encampment. Organized by Holtzman for Tikkun Olam Chavurah, Jewish Voice for Peace Philadelphia, Rabbis for Ceasefire and Families for Ceasefire, the event highlighted the call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Holtzman told local CBS News, Passover has felt “incomplete” this year.

“We couldn’t say the words that we were liberated and fully celebrate when we know that the people of Gaza are being killed,” Holtzman said.

She added, “People who are here today are ready to stand up, even if they’re angering their families, they’re angering their friends, they’re angering others in the Jewish community.”  

Tali Ruskin summed up what most protesters of all faiths have expressed: “Nobody wants to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m committing Genocide, I’m part of committing genocide,'” Ruskin said. “It’s a lot easier to say ‘We’re the victims.'”

Whose campus, whose speech

The free speech movement has a strong history in the U.S. as do protests themselves. At Columbia, students took over the same Hamilton Hall building where the arrests took place Tuesday night to protest the war in 1968 and to protest South African apartheid in 1985. Washington Post reporter Evan Hill tweeted Tuesday that “Columbia still has its official website up lionizing the protesters of 1968 who occupied university buildings to protest the Vietnam War until the NYPD, in Columbia’s own words, ‘stormed’ campus, creating a ‘fallout that dogged Columbia for years.’” Author Nancy Kricorian tweeted, “In the spring of 1985, we padlocked the front doors of Hamilton Hall, renaming it Mandela Hall, and encamped on the steps for three weeks. Columbia divested from South Africa in the fall of 1985.” Again, the university itself embraced the history.

After students smashed windows at Hamilton Hall and broke in, conjuring images for many online of January 6, despite the divergent reasons for the action, I wrote on Twitter, “It should go without saying that if you support violence or engage in it, you aren’t part of a peace movement nor a solidarity movement, but apparently this needs repeating. It also bears repeating that free speech and hate speech are always antithetical to each other.”

Therein lies the quandary as campuses move to close down encampments and ensure safe commencement programs. Columbia has requested NYPD presence through May 17. Penn will likely evict students in the coming week, according to university sources. Some campuses — Brown, Wesleyan and Cornell —have all made agreements with students to disband the encampments.

Semesters are drawing to a close on these campuses and media focus will inevitably shift away from the protests. Yet what propelled them remains: upwards of 34,000 civilians killed in Gaza with over 70% women and children. Destruction of all universities in Gaza. Discovery of mass graves where nearly 400 bodies, including at least 78 children, had been buried bound with zip ties, some with needles and tubes still in them. The killing of over 100 humanitarian aid workers. Starvation of civilians. And then what the students wanted: divestment from the billions of U.S. government funding of the war.

Protests Are Not New — But Are They Understood?

It’s been four years since the last protest movement spread across America. The violent torture murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 by four police officers, filmed live on camera by onlookers, led to months of protests throughout that summer. Led by Black Lives Matter, the protests were a referendum on justice for Black and brown victims of police violence like Floyd and Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor, as well as on the militarization of police departments nationwide.

How well protests are understood by those outside them has always been an issue, as has been the complaint from non-activists that the protesters are overreacting or not following imagined rules of engagement. That activists skew younger, more idealistic and with less clearly delineated goals is also often true. In the 2020 protests, the activists were largely young, at least half people of color, and with highly visible LGBTQ+ involvement. 

In the campus protests, there is also a large Black, brown and LGBTQ+ presence, but in this protest the issue of class has been equally defining as the presumption of whiteness and wealth has undergirded much of the commentary about those protests, particularly at Ivy League Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Penn. Sen. Robert Ortt, a New York State Republican leader, even described the Gaza war protesters at Columbia University and the City College of New York, as well as those on other U.S. college campuses as “spoiled brats” and “troublemakers,” praising the NYPD arrests of 282 protesters and demonstrators April 30. In commentary on liberal MSNBC, the pundits on “Morning Joe” and other shows have queried “where are the adults” and lamented the “damage” the protests have caused

How much did this objectifying commentary push the massive police response to a group of unarmed students at a university that had not, in previous protest movements, called in such a militarized response

During the hours of the Columbia takeover of Hamilton Hall, Democratic accounts on Twitter/X were posting inflammatory tweets from the notorious right-wing account, The Post Millennial, where students were asking for food for those inside the commandeered building. Yet human rights group Amnesty International posted that it was essential to “protect the protest” — a sentiment widely ignored. 

A narrative of linking the protests to terrorism has been apparent throughout, with some insisting on referring to the protestors as “pro-Hamas.” 

The anti-protest escalation this week found local and national news orgs and sites reporting unsubstantiated rumors of terrorists on the Columbia campus, while Mayor Eric Adams and NYPD hierarchy asserted without evidence that “outside agitators” were behind the Columbia protests. 

That same claim was made by former Obama advisor and CNN host David Axelrod.

But more notably, volumes of people on both sides of the aisle dismissed the protests as meaningless, silly and even dangerous. Neither CNN nor MSNBC featured interviews with people espousing the pro-Palestinian viewpoint but both repeatedly hosted students protesting the protestors.
Yet the one clear danger that emerged from the protests and how they have been addressed is how local and even national media on the ground has been barred entry and even arrested by police. Making the protests a free speech issue with several layers.

What’s next?

These protests are also backdrop to the 2024 election and the votes of students, Muslim and Jewish Americans and other disenfranchised groups from women to LGBTQ+ people who have been involved in this pro-Palestinian, anti-war movement are votes needed by Democrats to win.

On April 30, Biden said, “Forcibly taking over buildings is not peaceful — it is wrong. And hate speech and hate symbols have no place in America.”

Biden stopped short of demanding President Shafik resign or calling in the National Guard, as demanded by GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson last week and several Democratic House members from New York.

The disbanding of these encampments won’t end the questions raised by them. And as Netanyahu pledges to ignore Biden or any other world leader pleading for him to stop his plan to attack Rafah, it’s likely protests will just take another form.

What that will mean going forward is unclear, but a lot depends on what Biden does and says and who he reaches out to in the coming weeks and months. As these protests have shown, emotions are running very high. And it would not take much to light a fire that cannot be extinguished as easily as this one at Columbia was.

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