Violent Police Crackdown on Pro-Palestinian Protesters at Columbia University Amid Demands for Divestment

Pro-Palestinian student protesters at Columbia University demand divestment from companies doing business in Israel, citing lack of transparency in university investments. NYPD responds with violent crackdown, arresting approximately 300 people, amid allegations of excessive force and disputed characterization of student actions.

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Ebenezer Mensah
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Violent Police Crackdown on Pro-Palestinian Protesters at Columbia University Amid Demands for Divestment

Violent Police Crackdown on Pro-Palestinian Protesters at Columbia University Amid Demands for Divestment

Pro-Palestinian student protesters at Columbia University in New York City are demanding the university divest from companies doing business in Israel, citing a lack of transparency in the university's endowment investments. The protests, part of a broader movement across over 100 U.S. colleges in solidarity with Gazans following the recent Israel-Hamas war, have been met with a violent police crackdown on campus.

Why this matters: The protests and subsequent police response highlight the growing tensions around free speech and student activism on college campuses, particularly when it comes to controversial issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict. The protests and subsequent police response highlight the growing tensions around free speech and student activism on college campuses, particularly when it comes to controversial issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict. The outcome of this situation could set a precedent for how universities balance student demands with institutional interests and respond to protests, potentially affecting the broader terrain of student activism and academic freedom.

On Tuesday evening, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) was deployed to Columbia's campus to restore safety amid the protests. However, their conduct was deemed disproportionate and violent by many students and protesters. Police ripped pro-Palestinian student protesters linking arms away from each other, mostly women, and flung chairs and trash cans. Footage shows at least one protester hurtling down steps. Darializa Avila Chevalier, an Afro-Latina alumnus of Columbia University who was among the women blocking the entrance to Hamilton Hall, reported being pushed to the floor, feeling "totally helpless" and suffering bruises on her legs and arms.

The NYPD arrested approximately 300 people at Columbia and City College campuses, with charges including trespassing, criminal mischief, and burglary. Student protesters had occupied Hamilton Hall, renaming it Hind's Hall in tribute to 6-year-old Hind Rajab, who was killed during Israel's military offensive in Gaza.

Columbia University President Minouche Shafik acknowledged inviting the NYPD onto campus and thanked them for their "incredible professionalism." She described the student actions as "acts of destruction, not political speech." However, students and protesters disputed this characterization, accusing the administration of trying to prevent recordings and photographs of brutal arrests.

The protesters are demanding that Columbia divest from companies that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine. They are also calling for increased transparency around financial investments, with many students asking the university to disclose its investment profile and commit to divesting from any business that profits from or has a relationship with Israel. Some of the companies targeted include Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Alphabet, Amazon, and Google, which provides cloud computing services to Israeli troops.

However, divesting from Israel would mean universities reassessing their investment portfolios to identify and potentially divest from companies implicated in Israel's war effort. Experts say that divesting could be a lengthy and complicated process, as most universities hold diversified portfolios managed by external investment managers that can't provide easy identification of which companies are connected to Israel.

"It makes me really disappointed, but more than anything, it really, really makes me angry to see this sort of response," said Victoria Hinckley, a 21-year-old student organizer at the University of South Florida. "We think we should have a right to see where our own tuition money is going and have a say in what our tuition money is going towards."

Over 100 U.S. colleges have reported gifts or contracts from Israel totaling $375 million over the past two decades, according to a Department of Education database. Columbia University's endowment sits at $13.6 billion in 2023, while Harvard's endowment hovers around $50 billion. University endowments are managed to ensure long-term sustainability and generate returns to support the institution's mission.

The protests at Columbia are part of an ongoing series of incidents on campus related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In October 2023, the university closed its campus after opposing demonstrations collided. In November 2023, the administration suspended Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace after they held an unauthorized student walkout. In January 2024, students at a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus were sprayed with a chemical that they alleged to be Skunk, a foul-smelling spray usually used as crowd control by the Israel Defense Forces.

The protests continue, and the students are also seeking amnesty for disciplined students. Three female Columbia undergraduate students supportive of the protests stated that antisemitism allegations have been weaponized to crack down on pro-Palestinian protests, and that the administration has failed to address their concerns about the university's investments in companies complicit in human rights violations against Palestinians.

Key Takeaways

  • Pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University demand divestment from companies doing business in Israel.
  • NYPD crackdown on protests results in 300 arrests, with allegations of police brutality.
  • Students seek transparency in university investments, citing lack of disclosure.
  • Divestment from Israel would require universities to reassess investment portfolios.
  • Protests part of broader movement across 100+ US colleges in solidarity with Gazans.