Sun. May 26th, 2024

Cancelled classes, protests, and arrests: The flaring tensions at US universities, explained

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell May16,2024
Key Points
  • Students protesting the war in Gaza have camped in tents at New York’s Columbia University since 17 April.
  • More than 100 protesters have been arrested, while both Jewish and Palestinian students have said they feel unsafe.
  • Student protests are being held at colleges across the US, including Columbia, Yale and New York University.
Student protests in the US over the war in Gaza have intensified and expanded over the past week, with a number of encampments now in place at colleges including Columbia, Yale, and New York University.
Across campuses where protests have broken out, students have issued calls for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, an end to US military assistance for Israel, and university divestment from arms suppliers and other companies profiting from the war.

They’ve also demanded an amnesty for students and faculty members who have been disciplined or fired, following a crackdown from school administrators and local law enforcement agencies.

What’s been happening at Columbia?

The largest and most heated of these demonstrations is taking place at Columbia, an Ivy League university in New York City, where pro-Palestinian students have camped out in tents since the early hours of 17 April.

More than 100 protesters were arrested at the campus last week after university president Minouche Shafik called in the New York Police Department (NYPD) to clear the encampment, saying it violated rules against unauthorised protests.

The encampment was organised by a student-led coalition of groups, including Columbia University Apartheid Divest, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The NYPD has said it needs to be invited by university authorities to tackle trespassing or camping violations because the campus is private property, but it would act on its own in the event of violent crime.

Free speech and harassment

Some Jewish and Israeli students have complained of a hostile environment and antisemitic remarks that have made them feel unsafe on campus.
“I also want to be clear that we will not tolerate intimidating, harassing, or discriminatory behaviour,” Shafik said.
“The right to protest is essential and protected at Columbia, but harassment and discrimination is antithetical to our values and an affront to our commitment to be a community of mutual respect and kindness.”

Demonstrators contend the protests have been peaceful and that a few outsiders not connected with their movement are responsible for hateful confrontations.

Student protesters at Columbia University march in a line carrying placards and Palestinian flags

Students and pro-Palestinian activists have formed a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” at Columbia University. Source: SIPA USA / Jimin Kim / SOPA Images

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), meanwhile, criticised the use of police force to stifle dissent, saying it undermined academic freedom.

“So does defaming and endangering Jewish, Muslim and Palestinian … students based on suspiciously inflammatory remarks that a few unidentified, masked individuals have made outside of campus,” Afaf Nasher, executive director of CAIR in New York, said in a statement.
Critics of the protests, including prominent Republican members of Congress, have stepped up accusations of antisemitism and harassment by at least some protesters.

Civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have raised free speech concerns over the arrests.

Protesters — many of whom are Jewish — insist that their movement, established in solidarity with Palestinians, stands in opposition to antisemitism as well as Islamophobia and racism.
“There are no universities left in Gaza. So we chose to reclaim our university for the people of Palestine,” Soph Askanase, a Jewish Columbia student who was arrested and suspended for protesting, told Reuters.
“Antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism, in particular racism against Arabs and Palestinians, are all cut from the same cloth.”
Other students blamed universities for failing to protect their right to protest or stand up for human rights.

“As a Palestinian student, I too did not feel safe for the past six months, and that was as a direct result of Columbia’s one-sided statements and inaction,” said Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian student at Columbia.

Defusing tensions

Seeking to defuse tensions, Columbia cancelled in-person classes at its Upper Manhattan campus on Monday and announced on Tuesday that classes for the rest of the year would be hybrid, with students able to attend online or in person.
Later, the university’s president said it was time “to move forward with a plan to dismantle” the pro-Palestine encampment, and gave organisers a midnight deadline to do so.
“The encampment raises serious safety concerns, disrupts campus life, and has created a tense and at times hostile environment for many members of our community,” Shafik said.

“It is essential that we move forward with a plan to dismantle it.”

On Wednesday, Columbia said students had agreed to take down “a significant number” of the dozens of tents set up on the school’s main campus.
The concession by protesters was part of a deal under which Columbia agreed to extend by 48 hours a midnight deadline for the entire encampment to come down, it said in a statement, pointing to “significant progress” in the talks.

In addition to removing a significant number of tents, the university said student leaders had agreed to make sure that anyone unaffiliated with Columbia leaves the campus, that any activity complies with fire safety rules and that protesters refrain from any discriminatory or harassing language.

Coast-to-coast protests

Other campus protests taking place across the US have similarly met with shows of force from law enforcement.
State highway patrol troopers in riot gear and police on horseback broke up a protest at the University of Texas in Austin and arrested 20 people on Wednesday.
Free speech advocates PEN America called the sudden escalation at the university “deeply alarming”.

“The administration should be doing everything in their power to keep their students safe and the campus operating, but calling the state police to disperse a peaceful protest that had barely begun does the opposite,” Kristen Shahverdian, PEN’s campus free speech program director, said in a statement.

The University of Southern California meanwhile declared its campus closed and asked the Los Angeles Police Department to clear a demonstration. Police arrested students who peacefully surrendered one-by-one, hours after campus police who took down an encampment were overwhelmed by protesters and requested LAPD help.
Other demonstrations took place at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and California State Polytechnic in Humboldt.

The political reverberations reached the White House, where press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said President Joe Biden believes free speech, debate and non-discrimination are important on college campuses.

Netanyahu responds to US protests

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday “more has to be done” to stop pro-Palestinian protests at US campuses.
“What’s happening in America’s college campuses is horrific,” he said in a recorded statement, accusing “antisemitic mobs” of taking over leading universities.

“It’s unconscionable. It has to be stopped. It has to be condemned and condemned unequivocally,” he said.

“The response of several university presidents was shameful. Now, fortunately, state, local, federal officials, many of them have responded differently but there has to be more. More has to be done.”
Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies, and taking scores of hostages.

Israel’s counterattack has killed over 34,000 people, according to the Palestinian health ministry, displacing nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and causing a humanitarian crisis.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Cancelled classes, protests, and arrests: The flaring tensions at US universities, explained”
  1. Students protesting the war in Gaza are making a powerful statement by camping out at universities like Columbia. It’s concerning to see the escalating tensions and arrests, but their determination is admirable. Hopefully, their voices will lead to positive changes for a peaceful resolution.

  2. What specific actions are the university administrations taking to address the concerns raised by the protesting students?

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