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Columbia begins suspending pro-Palestine protesters after ultimatum ignored

University says move is ‘to ensure safety on campus’ after talks to reach compromise fail



Columbia University’s pro-Palestinian protesters ignored an ultimatum on Monday to abandon their encampment or risk suspension. The university said it started suspensions early on Monday evening.


“We have begun suspending students as part of this next phase of our efforts to ensure safety on our campus,” the university said in an update on its website. “Once disciplinary action is initiated, adjudication is handled by several different units within the university based on the nature of the offense.”


The ultimatum, setting a Monday deadline of 2pm, had come after the university’s president, Minouche Shafik, announced that efforts to reach a compromise with protest organisers had failed.


She said that the institution would not bow to demands to divest from Israel.


“It is important for you to know that the university has already identified many students in the encampment,” a letter written on university notepaper and headed “Notice to Encampment” read. “If you do not leave by 2pm, you will be suspended pending further investigation.”


It added: “If you voluntarily leave by 2pm, identify yourself to university officials, and sign the provided form where you commit to abide by all university policies through June 30 2025, or the date of the conferral of your degree, whichever is earlier, you will be eligible to complete the semester in good standing.”


Protest negotiators informed the university on Monday that the demonstrators had responded to the ultimatum by voting not to dismantle the encampment.


Footage posted on social media showed protesters, wearing face masks and bright tops and with their arms linked, forming a “human wall” apparently designed to block any attempt by law enforcement personnel from breaking up the protest site.


In a statement, protest organisers accused the university of a “violent escalation” and declared a readiness to intensify their actions in response.


“Today’s threat comes after days of fruitless negotiations in which the university refused to seriously consider our demands for divestment, financial transparency and amnesty for students and faculty disciplined in the movement for Palestinian liberation,” the statement added.


Columbia’s New York campus has become the centre of a spate of college protests across the US against Israel’s six-month war in Gaza, that has led to the death of more than 34,000 Palestinians, the displacement of hundreds of thousands more and brought the coastal territory to the brink of famine.


The demonstrations have triggered allegations of antisemitism amid reports by Jewish students that they have been subjected to threats and slurs.


Protest activists, in response, have asserted that the charges of antisemitism have been ramped up in an effort to silence criticism of Israel.



In her emailed statement to staff and students, Shafik – who this month underwent a fraught cross-examination from a congressional committee on alleged antisemitism at the university campus – said the tented protest community in the centre of the campus had “created an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty”.


“I know that many of our Jewish students, and other students as well, have found the atmosphere intolerable in recent weeks. Many have left campus, and that is a tragedy,” she wrote, putting much of the blame on “external actors”.


She said the breakdown of discussions took place in the face of the university’s search for a “collaborative resolution” leading to the encampment’s removal.


Although the university had rejected calls to divest from Israel, it had offered to make investments in health and education in Gaza, she said.


More than 100 demonstrators were arrested on Columbia’s campus on 18 April after police were deployed, prompting criticism of Shafik from many members of her own student body and some faculty members, who saw it as a crackdown on free speech.


Posting on X, the rightwing Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik – whose pointed questioning at a congressional hearing last December led to the resignation of University of Pennsylvania president Elizabeth Magill – condemned Columbia’s leadership for failing to respond forcefully to the protesters’ continuing defiance.


“2pm has come and gone,” she wrote. “Columbia’s empty threats and weak leadership have failed and surrendered Columbia’s campus to the pro-Hamas antisemitic mob. The world is watching as you continue to fail your Jewish students. Congress will continue to hold these failed institutions accountable.”


About 900 protesters, including academic faculty members, have been detained in campuses across the country as protests have sprung up nationwide.


About 275 arrests were recorded on Saturday alone at various campuses including Indiana University at Bloomington, Arizona State University and Washington University in St Louis.


Washington University said in a statement that more than 100 people, including 23 students and four university employees, had been arrested on suspicion of trespassing, amid reports of police trying to remove masked protesters, while others linked arms to evade arrest.


In Virginia, an unknown number of arrests took place at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg over the weekend after protesters began occupying the lawn outside the graduate life centre.


About 100 demonstrators were arrested at Northeastern University in Boston on Saturday. Authorities at Tufts University said they would be contacting protest leaders to agree the removal of a campus encampment in the coming days, while Emerson College, also in Boston, said it would not be initiating disciplinary proceedings against 100 students arrested in protests last week and would be discouraging prosecutors from pressing charges.


On Monday protesters near George Washington University in Washington DC were reported to have breached and dismantled barriers erected last week to prevent the occupation of the university yard.

Just a few blocks from the White House, protesters draped a Palestinian flag and a keffiyeh on the campus’ eponymous statue of America’s first president. Graffiti daubed on a plaque at the statue’s base read: “Genocidal Warmongering University.”


 

The Guardian, 2024



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