NYPD arrests over 100 at pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University

NEW YORK – Police arrested more than 100 protesters on Columbia University's campus Thursday after they set up encampments to protest Israel’s war in Gaza.

Police officers forcibly moved students out of tents at the center of Columbia’s campus in Manhattan, according to eyewitness accounts. University President Minouche Shafik told police the encampment began early Wednesday morning with more than 100 people occupying the South Lawn of the campus.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams confirmed the NYPD made more than 108 arrests.

Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of student organizations, said more than 120 people, including three legal observers, were arrested at Columbia’s “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.” The encampment was established early Wednesday morning, CUAD said.

"New York City Police violently arrested over 120 students and at least two legal observers for participating in a peaceful campus protest in support of Palestinian freedom – one of the largest mass arrests of student protesters since the start of Israel’s brutal genocide in Gaza."

City officials confirmed at a news conference Thursday evening that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar's daughter, Isra Hirsi, was among those arrested and charged with trespassing. Hirsi said in a social media post hours earlier that she and two other students were suspended for "standing in solidarity with Palestinians facing a genocide." She noted that in her three years at Barnard College, Thursday was the first time she had received a disciplinary warning.

Some people in the crowd donned keffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian scarf, and held signs. One read: "Defund Israel! America First!"

Other signs called for the safety of pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University. "CUNY students say: Stop the witch hunt against pro-Palestinian protesters!" a poster read.

Edrees Mohamed, a 20-year-old political science student studying at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, stood inside police barricades that NYPD slowly closed down around dozens of demonstrators outside of campus. Wearing a red keffiyeh, he had gone to the protest outside of Columbia to support student demonstrators.

His own friend had already been arrested, and Mohamed said he’d already been arrested three times for protesting in support of Palestinians.“I’m thinking about the kids in Gaza,” he said. “Us getting arrested is nothing compared to what they go through.”

Demonstrators were warned multiple times that they were not allowed to occupy the space and needed to disperse, Shafik said. All participants were told they were trespassing and have been suspended, she said.

"Students who are participating in the unauthorized encampment are suspended. We are continuing to identify them and will be sending out formal notifications," university spokesperson Samantha Slater told USA TODAY.

The Columbia Spectator, a student newspaper, reported the incident marked the first time that mass arrests were made on campus since 1968, when NYPD arrested hundreds of students protesting the Vietnam War.

On Wednesday, Shafik appeared before a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., regarding antisemitism on campus. She defended free speech, but when asked whether calling for the genocide of Jewish people would violate Columbia’s rules, she said yes.

The group said a student fainted outside of the encampment, and police denied access to health services.

CUAD, along with Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, organized the encampment to “protest Columbia University’s continued financial investment in corporations that profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine,” the group said.

The student coalition said the lawn was previously designated a “free speech zone,” according to the new campus policy on protests.

A USA TODAY reporter was denied entry onto the campus amid the protests, as were some other members of the media.

Boston-area family visits campus, hopeful for protests

Holding a brochure for Barnard College, the women’s university nearby that’s connected to Columbia, Massachusetts high school student Olive Beal-Redd, 16, stood just outside of the protests with her mother, Kate, and her little sister, Viola. Beal-Redd had just finished a tour for Barnard, where she hopes to study political science after graduating high school.

Beal-Redd started her own group in support of Palestine at her high school near Boston, but she was amazed by the activism at the New York City campus. She said they couldn’t tour Columbia, though, only Barnard, which was empty as people protested.

“I’m really disappointed in the administration at Columbia for the way they’ve been behaving,” she said. “But what’s most important is that people are coming together, and that people care, because there are so many people that have died and so many who have been murdered.”

Beal-Redd hoped to stay at the protests, though her mother said they would see.

The protest Thursday is the latest in the nation to protest Israel's war in Gaza. Earlier this week, Pro-Palestinian demonstrators demanding a cease-fire blocked bridge traffic in San Francisco and New York. In Chicago, the highway that leads into O'Hare Airport was jammed by a protest, leading several passengers to walk to the terminal with their luggage.

Argument erupts over Israeli flag

A.J. Edelman, a 32-year-old Israeli bobsled captain and Olympian, stood near the overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian protest. Staunchly pro-Israel, he said he was there to have a discussion with those he disagreed with, on terms such as genocide and the apartheid state.

At one point, he got in an argument over a tattered Israeli flag, doused in red to represent blood, that demonstrators stepped on. He made several attempts to take the flag, causing it to rip further as he and demonstrators tugged at it.

“I do care about what the flag represents,” Edelman told demonstrators as police in riot helmets shielded him from the crowd. “The flag to me represents equality.”

Several demonstrators yelled at him as police intervened. He’d often turn back despite police warnings and stayed until the protest dispersed.

NYCLU says Columbia's actions send 'chills' about student expression, NYPD tactics questioned

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Columbia University has had a long tradition of student advocacy on a range of issues dating back to the Vietnam War. The university has allowed protests to take place without officials calling the NYPD.

The university's decision to call police “chills” student expression, departs from past practices and raises questions on disparate treatment of students based on their views, Lieberman said, particularly after Congress’ pressure to clamp down on student protests against Israel's war in Gaza.

“Columbia should be creating an environment that encourages people to speak out, participate in hard discussions, and engage with global events – not rushing to call the cops on their own students,” she said.

Lieberman also expressed concern that the NYPD used its Strategic Response Group, which she said has a history of escalation and violence, and officers’ decision to arrest legal observers who monitor police activities against demonstrators.

“The NYPD knows better,” she said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NYPD arrests 108 at pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University