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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Universities struggle as pro-Palestinian demonstrations grow

People gather as Columbia University faculty speak against the university’s crackdown on pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University in New York on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Bing Guan/The New York Times)

By Alan Blinder

At New York University, police swept in to arrest protesting students Monday night, ending a standoff with the school’s administration.

At Yale University, police placed protesters’ wrists into zip ties Monday morning and escorted them onto campus shuttles to receive summonses for trespassing.

Columbia University kept its classroom doors closed Monday, moving lectures online and urging students to stay home.

Harvard Yard was shut to the public. Nearby, at campuses including Tufts and Emerson, administrators weighed how to handle encampments that looked much like the one that police dismantled at Columbia last week — which protesters quickly resurrected. On the West Coast, a new encampment bubbled at the University of California, Berkeley.

Less than a week after the arrests of more than 100 protesters at Columbia, administrators at some of the country’s most influential universities were struggling, and largely failing, to calm campuses torn by the conflict in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

During the turmoil Monday, which coincided with the start of Passover, protesters called on their universities to become less financially tied to Israel and its arms suppliers. Many Jewish students agonized anew over some protests and chants that veered into antisemitism, and feared again for their safety. Some faculty members denounced clampdowns on peaceful protests and warned that academia’s mission to promote open debate felt imperiled. Alumni and donors raged.

And from Congress, there were calls for the resignation of Columbia’s president from some of the same lawmakers Nemat Shafik tried to pacify last week with words and tactics that inflamed her own campus.

The menu of options for administrators handling protests seems to be quickly dwindling. It is all but certain that the demonstrations, in some form or another, will last on some campuses until the end of the academic year, and even then, graduation ceremonies may be bitterly contested gatherings.

For now, with the most significant protests confined to a handful of campuses, administrators’ approaches sometimes seem to shift from hour to hour.

“I know that there is much debate about whether or not we should use the police on campus, and I am happy to engage in those discussions,” Shafik said in a message to students and employees early Monday, four days after officers dressed in riot gear helped clear part of Columbia’s campus.

“But I do know that better adherence to our rules and effective enforcement mechanisms would obviate the need for relying on anyone else to keep our community safe,” she added. “We should be able to do this ourselves.”

Protesters have demonstrated with varying intensity since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. But this particular round of unrest began to gather greater force last Wednesday, after Columbia students erected an encampment, just as Shafik was preparing to testify before Congress.

At that hearing in Washington, before a Republican-led House committee, she vowed to punish unauthorized protests on the private university’s campus more aggressively, and the next day, she asked the New York Police Department to clear the encampment. In addition to the more than 100 people arrested, Columbia suspended many students. Many Columbia professors, students and alumni voiced fears that the university was stamping out free debate, a cornerstone of the American college experience.

The harsher approach helped lead to more protests outside Columbia’s gates, where Jewish students reported being targeted with antisemitic jeers and described feeling unsafe as they traveled to and from their campus.

The spiraling uproar in upper Manhattan helped fuel protests on some other campuses.

“We’re all a united front,” said Malak Afaneh, a law student protesting at University of California, Berkeley. “This was inspired by the students at Columbia who, in my opinion, are the heart of the student movement whose bravery and solidarity with Palestine really inspired us all.”

The events at Columbia also rippled to Yale, where students gathered at Beinecke Plaza in New Haven, Connecticut, for days to demand that the university divest from arms manufacturers.

Yale President Peter Salovey said Monday that university leaders had spent “many hours” in talks with protesters, with an offer that included an audience with the trustee who oversees Yale’s Corporation Committee on Investor Responsibility. But university officials had decided late Sunday that the talks were proving unsuccessful and, Salovey said, they were troubled by reports “that the campus environment had become increasingly difficult.”

Authorities arrested 60 people Monday morning, including 47 students, Salovey said. The university said the decision to make arrests was made with “the safety and security of the entire Yale community in mind and to allow access to university facilities by all members of our community.”

In the hours after the arrests, though, hundreds of protesters blocked a crucial intersection in New Haven.

“We demand that Yale divests!” went one chant.

“Free Palestine!” went another.

The scene was less contentious in Massachusetts, where Harvard officials had moved to limit the possibility of protests by closing Harvard Yard, the 25-acre core of the campus in Cambridge, through Friday. Students were warned that they could face university discipline if they, for instance, erected unauthorized tents or blocked building entrances.

On Monday, Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee said on social media that the university had suspended it. National Students for Justice in Palestine, a loose confederation of campus groups, said it believed the decision was “clearly intended to prevent students from replicating the solidarity encampments” emerging across the United States. Harvard said in a statement that it was “committed to applying all policies in a content-neutral manner.”

Elsewhere in the Boston area, protesters had set up encampments at Emerson College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University. But those protests, for now, appeared more modest than the ones at Yale and in New York, where demonstrators constructed an encampment outside NYU’s Stern School of Business.

NYU officials tolerated the demonstration for hours but signaled Monday night that their patience was wearing thin. Police officers gathered near the protest site as demonstrators ignored a 4 p.m. deadline to vacate it. As nightfall approached, sirens blared and officers, donning helmets and bearing zip ties, mustered. Prisoner transport vans waited nearby.

“Students, students, hold your ground!” protesters roared. “NYU, back down!”

Soon enough, police officers marched on the demonstration.

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