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Police arrest pro-Palestinian activists at Columbia University in scenes reminiscent of Vietnam war protests

April 19, 2024 at 3:09 pm

“Gaza Solidarity Encampment” demonstration is held on South Lawn of Columbia University campus with more than 100 students who were demanding that Columbia divest from corporations with ties to Israel in New York, United States on April 17, 2024. [Selçuk Acar – Anadolu Agency]

In scenes reminiscent of police crackdowns on students protesting the Vietnam War, more than 100 pro-Palestinian activists were arrested yesterday on the campus of New York’s Columbia University.

Columbia University called in New York City police to break up a pro-Palestinian encampment, which resulted in 108 arrests according to Mayor Eric Adams. Several students involved with the protest have been suspended and threatened with eviction from their graduate student housing for pro-Palestinian activism on campus.

Yesterday’s crackdown by the police came after a congressional hearing at which Columbia’s President, Nemat Shafik, was questioned on alleged anti-Semitism on campus. She was also challenged by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on alleged targeting of pro-Palestinian protesters.

Isra Hirsi, the daughter of the Minnesota congresswoman, is among several students who have been suspended for participating in a pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University.

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Writing on X, Hirsi said she is “one of three students suspended for standing in solidarity with Palestinians facing a genocide.” She went on to say that despite being an organiser with Columbia University Apartheid Divest, she had never been reprimanded or received any disciplinary warnings in her three years at the college. The organisation advocates for the university to divest from “companies complicit in genocide”.

“Those of us in Gaza Solidarity Encampment will not be intimidated. We will stand resolute until our demands are met,” Hirsi added. “Our demands include divestment from companies complicit in genocide, transparency of @Columbia’s investments and FULL amnesty for all students facing repression.”

Columbia, one of the most prestigious universities in the US, has become the centre for pro-Palestine student activism since Israel launched its deadly military aggression on Gaza more than six months ago, with protests both in support of the apartheid state and against the genocide. Nearly 34,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed in the Israeli assault on the besieged enclave. Those who have survived the onslaught face famine and starvation due to an Israeli blockade.

Shafik described the decision to call the police as an “extraordinary step” necessary to “support both the right to expression and the safety and functioning of our university” after the protesters refused to disperse.

Read: British Muslims snub Downing Street Eid party in protest over Gaza

The tough stance from Columbia follows a contentious congressional hearing on Wednesday, where Shafik and other university officials testified about their efforts to combat anti-Semitism on campus, including investigations and dismissals of faculty members. The hearing, which featured aggressive questioning from Republican lawmakers, had recently contributed to the resignations of the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.

However, the police crackdown risks further inflaming tensions at a time when both Jewish and Muslim groups have filed lawsuits against multiple universities for failing to prevent incidents of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Recent polls also indicate growing criticism among students and younger voters towards Democrats, including President Joe Biden, for not putting more pressure on Israel to impose a ceasefire in Gaza.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, college campuses across the US became hotbeds of student activism and protest, particularly surrounding opposition to the Vietnam War and in support of the Civil Rights Movement. These protests were often met with heavy-handed crackdowns by law enforcement.

In October 1967, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison organised a sit-in protest against Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of napalm used by the US military in the Vietnam War. The demonstration, which took place in the university’s Commerce Building, was part of a larger wave of student activism across the US in opposition to the war.

As the sit-in continued, university officials called in local police to remove the protesters. When the police arrived, they demanded that the students disperse, but the protesters refused to leave. In response, the police forcibly entered the building and began dragging students out. The situation quickly escalated into a violent confrontation. Police officers used tear gas and billy clubs to subdue the protesters, while some students fought back by throwing rocks and other objects. Dozens of students were beaten and many more were arrested.