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Pro-Palestinian Campus Encampments Spread Nationwide Amid Mass Arrests at Columbia, NYU & Yale

by Democracy Now!
April 23, 2024 - Palestinian solidarity protests and encampments are appearing on college campuses from Massachusetts to California to protest Israel’s attacks on Gaza and to call for divestment from Israeli apartheid.
April 23, 2024 - Palestinian solidarity protests and encampments are appearing on college campuses from Massachusetts to California to pr...
This week, police have raided encampments and arrested students at Yale and New York University. Palestinian American scholar and New York University professor Helga Tawil-Souri describes forming a faculty buffer to protect students, negotiating with police, and the ensuing crackdown that led to over 100 arrests Monday night. Uptown in New York City, the encampment at Columbia University is entering its seventh day despite mass arrests of protesters last week. “In my opinion, the NYPD were called in under false pretenses by the president of the university,” says Joseph Slaughter, professor at Columbia University. “The university is being run as a sort of ad-hocracy at this point, the senior administration making up policies and procedures and prohibitions on the fly, changing them in the middle of the night.”


AMY GOODMAN: As Israel’s assault on Gaza enters its 200th day, Palestinian solidarity protests and encampments are spreading on college campuses across the United States, inspired by the Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University. Here in New York, police raided a student encampment at New York University Monday night. Police arrested more than 150 people, including students and 20 faculty members. Earlier on Monday, police at Yale University arrested 60 protesters, including 47 students who had set up an encampment to demand the school divest from weapons manufacturers.

At Columbia, the student encampment has entered its seventh day. On Monday night, about 100 Columbia student protesters and faculty took part in a Gaza Liberation Seder to mark the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, or Pesach. On Monday, hundreds of Columbia professors held a mass walkout. This is Columbia history professor Christopher Brown.

AMY GOODMAN: Student encampments are now in place at numerous other schools, including University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; University of California, Berkeley; University of Maryland; MIT and Emerson College in Boston.

We’re joined now by two professors. Joseph Slaughter is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, which put out a public statement condemning the repression of student protests at Columbia and the calling in of the New York police, who made over a hundred arrests. Also with us, New York University professor Helga Tawil-Souri. She’s a leading Palestinian American scholar of media, culture and communication, co-editor of the book Gaza as Metaphor.

OK, we’re going to begin with New York University, with professor Tawil-Souri. You have been at the encampment since it began at NYU Monday morning at 4:00, and you just came from jail support, where, what, over 140 people, including 20 of your peers, NYU professors, were arrested. Can you explain what’s going on at NYU?

HELGA TAWIL-SOURI: Yeah, sure. So, the students decided to start an encampment yesterday early in the morning in support of Gaza, in support of Palestine, also kind of in support, obviously, of other students, at Columbia and otherwise. And very early on already, from the very beginning of the first tents being set up, the NYU security guards came and NYPD came. But quickly, kind of a sort of deescalation, if you want, kind of took place between faculty members and security guards, and NYPD left. And it was peaceful all day long. And, you know, there was a lot of sort of negotiation back and forth between the faculty and the security guards on behalf of the students.

And at some point in the afternoon, kind of, you know, things — like, police presence was kind of escalating, and the negotiations kind of stopped. And at some point, the NYU security guards were like, “All right, well, we’re just” — they made it pretty clear that NYPD presence was just sort of imminent at that point and kind of started coming up with all kinds of reasons as to why they were going to show up and so on, kind of kept pushing the bar in different directions. And then the NYPD came.

Faculty kind of had made a sort of frontline kind of buffer zone at the very beginning. They were arrested very quickly, and then the police force kind of forcing their way into the sort of plaza where the students had their tents set up, and extremely violently kind of took down all the tents, were throwing chairs around, and then arrested all of the students that were there, and then also had a third wave of arrests of other people that were kind of still in that area, as well. So, yeah, 20 faculty members ended up in prison — or, sorry, were arrested. And I think the number of total arrests was around 140, 145.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Tawil-Souri, at any time were the students in any way disrupting the classes in the university or the business of the university?

HELGA TAWIL-SOURI: I mean, not really, I mean, in the sense that, you know, they got there pretty early in the morning, and very quickly NYU security guards decided to kind of barricade that area. So, if anybody was disrupting, it was actually NYU security and not the students, because they’re the ones who kind of set up all the barriers and would forbid students from — students, whether they were coming for the encampment or just trying to get to class — would not actually let them access that way, so they had to kind of go all the way around and so on. And so, there was very little movement in terms of letting people in or out of the encampment. And we had to sort of negotiate, like for bathroom breaks and stuff like that.

And, you know, the disruption — I mean, we’re told that, “Oh, the disruption was part of the protest — right? — and the chanting and the singing.” But, you know, it’s New York City. It’s really loud. There was construction right across the street, so it’s really hard for me to understand that that was a sort of disruption. So, really, the disruption, I think, was much more on the part of the security guards who really sort of blocked off that entire area.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And to your knowledge, did the administration or the president have any discussions with the NYU faculty before calling in the police?

HELGA TAWIL-SOURI: So, I, myself, and a number of my colleagues, in terms of like NYU faculty, sort of went back and forth numerous times with a couple of the deans and a couple — and the head of NYU security, and so kind of negotiated sort of back and forth about, you know: Can we let the kids out to the bathroom? Can we come in? Can we go out? Can we bring more people in? Can we bring more people out? But not directly with the president of the university, but just mostly the head of security, and a couple of times with the NYPD, certainly early in the morning.

And, you know, I mean, one of the things that, you know, I mean, we’ve seen sort of the — we’ve seen the response of the president of the university, saying that, “Oh, there was a breach in the barrier.” And, I mean, I can tell you — I was there all day — that breach in the barrier was really not a breach in that sense. I mean, there were a couple of students who sort of went in. I think the concern was as to whether or not we could control whether the people that were going onto the plaza were NYU students. And so we offered numerous times, like, “Well, we’re happy to go around and kind of ask all the students for their ID cards.” And at some point, the security guards said, “OK, fine, we’ll do this.” And then, suddenly they said no, and they sort of came up with all sorts of reasons as to why we weren’t kind of following rules, and, ultimately, you know, claimed that we were trespassing on our own campus, right? I mean, it was a presumably private part of the university, and it was NYU students and NYU faculty that are then charged with trespassing and then violently kind of thrown out from that space.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring professor Joseph Slaughter into this conversation. You’re at Columbia. You’re associate professor of English and comparative literature there, and you’re the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. It was your president, President Minouche Shafik, who called out the New York Police Department. This was a day after she testified before Congress. Can you talk about your response to the encampment and then the arrest of over a hundred students?

JOSEPH SLAUGHTER: Thank you, Amy. I certainly can.

So, the response that we had at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights was that we immediately recognized the infringement of student rights to protest peacefully and freedoms of speech on campus and the threat, the dramatic threat, it raised, that the bringing in the police, the university president calling in the police, raised immediately, of course, the specter of '68, which I'm glad you’ll be talking about — you’ll be talking about a minute later.

There are a number of things I would like to say about the bringing in of the police. We have, actually, in the wake of 1968, a very strong set of university statutes that include things like protections for speech and protest on campus. They effectively are the constitution of Columbia University. They are the product of — the good product of 1968, establishing systems of shared governance between faculty, students and the administration. And there are emergency powers that the president has to protect faculty, students, the Columbia community, in the case of imminent threats to people and property on campus that are spelled out in the — loosely in the university statutes.

The president, however, has an absolute obligation — it’s spelled out very clearly — to consult with the Executive Committee of the University Senate, which includes students and faculty, before bringing any police — external police forces onto campus. In this case, she approached, on the very first day of the Columbia encampment, which was a peaceful, nonviolent protest, not disturbing, in my opinion, the Columbia environment, the Columbia campus, and certainly posing no threat to persons or property. She approached the Executive Committee of the University Senate, asking for their permission to invite the NYPD in to shut down, to squelch the protest. The Executive Committee — the faculty and the students on the Executive Committee voted unanimously to reject her request to bring in New York police. She did it anyway, thus violating not only the statutes, in my opinion, certainly the long traditions of shared governance, the long traditions of protest and protections of speech on campus, as well as the compact between students, faculty and the administration, to act unilaterally, essentially throwing out the rulebook and throwing out the constitution, the statutes of the university.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Slaughter, this whole issue of within 24 hours students receiving notices of suspensions? What kind of due process occurred here?

JOSEPH SLAUGHTER: That’s a great question, and I think it’s something that’s extremely important for people to understand. In the letter that President Shafik sent the NYPD, the chief of police, asking them for their intervention, she claimed that the students were being suspended for violations of the university policies and that, therefore, they were trespassing on Columbia property. The students, the 108 students who were arrested, were charged with trespassing. However, in fact, the vast majority of those students — there were a number of exceptions from Barnard, apparently, but the vast majority of those students were in fact not suspended until 24 hours after the arrests. The suspension notices that the students received now cite the arrests themselves as part of the cause for suspension. In other words, the logic was circular. They called in the New York Police Department on the premise that the students were trespassing, when they hadn’t yet been suspended. And they are now suspended on the premise that they had violated trespassing — New York trespassing laws, and therefore needed to be suspended and were guilty. In my opinion, the NYPD were called in under false pretenses by the president of the university.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to the New York police chief. John Chell said that President Shafik identified the demonstration as a “clear and present danger,” but that officers found the students to be peaceful and cooperative.

JOSEPH SLAUGHTER: I think this is also something that’s absolutely important for people to know. In fact, John Chell, the chief of patrol, said that the — disavowed the language of “clear and present danger.” The president had used the language, in the exact language taken from the university statutes, of “clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the university.” She did not, however, say that the students posed a clear and present danger to persons and property, which are the two primary criteria for bringing in police onto campus to protect the Columbia community. In other words, at the moment in which she was making a speech for which she could be held legally responsible — that is, writing to the police department to call in the police department — she refused to use the — to say that the students were a clear and present danger to Columbia faculty and persons and property. In other words, while she was sending messaging out, while the university administration was sending messaging out through all of its channels, by email and public announcements, saying that these students posed a danger, that’s not the language they used to talk to the — to invite the police in. The chief of patrol said, in fact, that the students posed no danger, disavowed the language of clear and present danger, saying that’s President Shafik’s words, not his, and that the students were protesting peacefully, saying what they wanted to say peacefully, and in no way resisted arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened yesterday? Talk about the — you have the student encampment on the South Lawn, and then you have the professors going into Low Library for a meeting.

JOSEPH SLAUGHTER: So, the university is being run as a sort of ad-hocracy at this point, the senior administration making up policies and procedures and prohibitions on the fly, changing them in the middle of the night. One of those prohibitions was that no protest could take place on the steps of Low Library. I assume you will be showing images later about protests in 1968 of Low Library. The faculty, in response — a broad coalition of faculty, in response to the student arrests and to the bringing of police onto campus, chose yesterday to walk out at 2 p.m., in full regalia for many of us, to stand on the steps of Low Library in front of the statue of Alma Mater, a heralded tradition of protest on campus, to defend our students, to defend the rights of students, to denounce the police actions and the president’s sanctioning of the police actions, to call for the immediate repeal of the suspension of our students, the restoration of all of their rights, the expungement of their records, and to submit an appeal for a vote of censure in the University Senate of Minouche Shafik and her senior administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Slaughter, not only at Columbia, but at universities across the country, we are repeatedly hearing that these protests in support of the Palestinians who are being attacked in Gaza, that this is making life unsafe, these protests are making life unsafe for Jewish students on these campuses. What’s your response to that?

JOSEPH SLAUGHTER: So, I have multiple responses. The messaging out of Columbia has consistently emphasized the dangers of these protests in particular to Jewish and Israeli and pro-Israeli students. In fact, the messaging has been one of fear towards those students explicitly. The messaging, at the same time, has been one of fear to students — to pro-Palestinian students, to anti-Zionist Jewish students, to other students who want to think about and talk about and discuss the questions of Palestine, the questions of Israel, which is the duty of a university to think about these hard problems. The message to those students have been — is also fear, but a fear by omission, the university not ever acknowledging any of the fears, the Islamaphobic actions that are taking place on campus, any of the attacks that have taken place on campus. And so, in some ways, the university itself, it seems to me, in its public messaging since October has ginned up fear both among Jewish students and pro-Palestinian students.

The campus, in fact — the kind of impromptu and improvised policies that the administration has unilaterally imposed, without consultation from the University Senate, without the traditions of shared governance, have, in fact, in my opinion, chilled speech, not just of pro-Palestinian protesters, but also of pro-Israeli protesters, and has absolutely chilled speech in classrooms and in other kind of forums on campus to be able to even talk about the problems that lie at the bottom of all of this — that is, Palestinian rights to self-determination, Israeli rights to security.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Tawil-Souri, what do you see happening in the coming days at NYU?

HELGA TAWIL-SOURI: Well, it’s hard to say. But maybe, quickly, if I could just add one thing? I mean, you know, a lot of the students and the faculty at NYU who were part of the encampment, and in general are part of sort of, like, SJP and FJP and so on, are actually Jewish, right? So, that’s number one.

The other thing that I think is — you know, I mean, I don’t know how much news has sort of come out since yesterday about what happened, but when the NYPD finally came in and sort of broke the encampment apart, it was in the middle of Muslim Maghrib prayers, like the evening prayers, right? So I think that kind of speaks a little bit to what you’re saying — right? — in terms like the way that it’s not really about sort of one group or the other, but also how different groups are kind of treated.

In terms of what happens at NYU from this point on, I mean, I can tell you the students feel very sort of spirited, in the sense of, like, they want to kind of continue. You know, for them, it’s about, “OK, fine, you took us down, but we’re going to continue. We have the right to protest. We have the right to academic speech. We have the right to free speech. And we have the right to kind of stand up for our pro-Palestinian voices, basically.” I’m not quite sure — I mean, I can’t sort of say how the university is going to respond, but, you know, I think the students are going to sort of have to figure out, like, how are they going to be able to protest. So, unlike Columbia, NYU is this kind of a somewhat urban kind of campus, right? So there is no lawn, if you want, to kind of go and protest on. And so I think that’s part of what we saw yesterday, is this plaza where the encampment took place is private property, but, you know, the moment you step off of the steps, it becomes New York City property, right? So, there’s a very sort of blurry line as to where does the NYPD kind of sort of stop its sort of jurisdiction, if you want to call it that, versus where does campus security stop. So I think that’s a little bit different in terms of NYU, and I think that’s a sort of challenge, if you want, that is faced by the students. But I think the students kind of are very resolved, in the sense of, like, “We’re going to keep going with this.”

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Tawil-Souri, The New York Times subheadline was “Dozens were arrested on Monday at N.Y.U. and Yale, but officials there and at campuses across the U.S. are running out of options to corral protests,” they said. What are the options that officials have at these universities, besides arrests and suspensions?

HELGA TAWIL-SOURI: That’s a great question. I mean, maybe first to kind of have a discussion, right? Like kind of, you know, be sort of very open about, like, “All right, well, let’s sort of sit down and talk about these things. Let’s host a number of different events. Let’s host a number of different speakers. Let’s allow for these kind of speakers and events to happen.” I think what we see is also a sort of shutdown of certain kinds of things, right? Let’s allow for whether it’s classes or teach-ins or all of that.

And in terms of the protesters, I mean, yesterday there was a sort of — you know, I think part of what happened, certainly at NYU, is that there was a kind of compression, if you will, right? So, people in support were coming to sort of demonstrate and speak with the students and so on, but couldn’t kind of access, right? So they bleed into the streets, and the students can’t get out. And so it’s sort of a bit of a sort of pressure cooker, in the sense that, you know, of course you’re creating this kind of barricade that becomes very difficult to manage, but it’s also becoming a way that the barrier itself is actually creating part of the problem, right? So, I think if you kind of have a way to kind of figure out how to sort of allow people to move around, to not necessarily prevent them from moving, I think a lot of problems would kind of not exist to begin with.

AMY GOODMAN: Same question, Professor Slaughter.

JOSEPH SLAUGHTER: Thank you. One of the things that President Shafik said in response to a question at Congress last week that I found most disturbing that hasn’t been commented on at all is that what she’s learned over this last six months is that our rules weren’t made for this moment. And this justifies in some ways the administration throwing out the rulebook and coming up with impromptu policies on how to police speech.

In fact, the rules were made exactly for this moment. They were made for 1968 — they were made from 1968 and to prevent a repeat of 1968. We have an extremely robust rules for the protections of speech and protest on campus. We have an extremely robust system for protecting due process rights for students when they have violated or are accused of having violated those protections. If this administration had chosen to lean into the statutes of the university and the rules that have kept our community together for 50 years, we would be in a much better place, with faculty and students on board.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’m glad you went back in history, because that’s where we’re going right now, Professor Slaughter of Columbia University and Professor Helga Tawil-Souri of New York University.
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