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We Columbia University students urge you to listen to our voices

Columbia College Student Council

Please, listen to us – not political figures, radical fringes and misguided media

The Guardian, 4 May 2024

On Tuesday night, we watched in horror as hundreds of riot police flooded our beloved campus and brutalized our classmates. The next day, students awoke with swollen faces, bruised wrists and lacerations – all results of inhumane police treatment. The past two weeks have been tumultuous, marked with mass arrests of student demonstrators, an encampment on our lawns, national media attention and vile acts of hatred. Countless have spoken on our behalf. But by speaking over us, media outlets and politicians have created a distorted narrative – one which unfairly characterizes our community.

The pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia

Now, it is time to elevate student perspectives, the “us”, rather than the “them”. The traumatic environment and militarization of our campus are not the sole product of ill-intended protesters or reckless non-affiliates, as claimed by administrative emails; rather, they are the fault of the senior administration themselves. For months, this crisis has brewed as administrators neglected student and faculty voices. We must be clear: the administration has put our students’ safety at risk and has failed to ensure a conducive learning environment. As student leaders, it is time for our voice to be heard.

The seeds of the NYPD’s 30 April raid on Columbia University were planted nearly six months ago. On 24 October, Columbia’s senior administration unilaterally created an illegitimate university event policy in the aftermath of peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstrations, granting them the power to regulate protests and “‘sole discretion’ to determine sanctions on student organizations and their members”. Thus, senior administration circumvented process and procedure and undermined shared governance, rather than adhere to the rules of university conduct, adopted by our university senate and set out in the university statutes.

This was only the beginning of what would become a pattern of executive overreach. The results of this unprecedented action first manifested on 3 November, when the Columbia chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were suspended due to unsubstantiated claims of “threatening rhetoric and intimidation”.

When this rationale was questioned in January, senior executive vice-president Gerald Rosberg admitted that “there was no intent to insinuate that one group was threatening” and “if the reference was read that way, he offered his regrets”. This dismissive and inactionable apology was inadequate and unproductive. Rosberg’s comments did not rectify the university’s wrongdoing, and only further initiated a standard of stifling free speech. The move, condemned by both faculty and students, elicited a commitment from the administration to re-evaluate its actions and engage in more transparent decision-making processes.

Unsurprisingly, this was an empty promise. The administration has continued to make decisions without our input, disregarding our community’s wellbeing, values and rules. The taskforce created to address antisemitism did not include students and was inefficient. The administration also failed to properly acknowledge, much less tackle, the growing presence of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian hate on our campus.

Adding fuel to the fire, senior administration then enabled our campus to turn into a hotspot for politicians, radicalists and opportunists, despite repeated claims by the senior administration that they were working to “ “keep all members of our community physically safe”. Shai Davidai, an assistant professor in the business school, publicly characterized Jewish students at pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “terrorists” and “Judenrat” whilst receiving more than 50 complaints. He was permitted to remain on campus for months. Professor Joseph Massad described the 7 October attack as “awesome”; he remains on campus. Even the co-founder of the terrorist militia group Proud Boys gained access to Columbia.

These administrative choices to avoid disciplining or barring extremists exposed many of our peers to known threats, perpetuated the narrative that Columbia is hatred-ridden and set the stage for political theatrics, without advancing the safety of Jewish students. As our community slowly burned, our president, the co-chair of the taskforce on antisemitism and the co-chairs of the board of trustees were questioned in Congress on the basis that Columbia tolerates antisemitism through hateful protests. Contrary to these allegations, the protests at Columbia were organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest (Cuad): a non-violent and decentralized coalition of more than 100 recognized student groups across the political and cultural spectrum. At the hearing, the administrators also failed to defend our university’s commitment to academic freedom – a legal requirement and a core tenet of all educational institutions, furthering the false narrative of hate that continues to misrepresent our community.

On 17 April, in response to the persistent disregard by our administrators, student activists chose to demonstrate through a peaceful encampment on our university’s lawns – a description corroborated by the NYPD’s chief of patrol. Media and politicians sensationalized these students as largely violent extremists. Yet, we witnessed students create and uphold community guidelines disavowing all forms of hate. We witnessed people of different faiths and religions protecting each other during prayers. We witnessed a community form, with student groups dancing, singing, teaching and making art together.

But instead of engaging with these protesters or charging them with rules of university conduct violations, the administration chose to call the NYPD on to campus – leading to the arrests of 108 student protesters and the unsanctioned arrests of two legal observers on 18 April 2024. This action marked a gross escalation in the administration’s negligence of shared governance: ignoring a unanimous veto by the university senate executive committee, who are required to be consulted before police enter university grounds. This neglectful decision was met with harsh rebuke from much of Columbia and mischaracterized our community as violent extremists. Rather than quell the protest, tensions inflamed and a second encampment, even larger than the first, was erected within hours.

As the sky turned dark on Tuesday night, students received an ominous ‘shelter-in-place’ directive

Of all the administration’s actions, the days preceding this week’s NYPD raid have been the most emblematic of their tactics to heighten tension and fear on our campus, silencing speech in the process. Their initial move to end the second encampment involved leveraging title VI, an anti-discrimination law, to mass-discipline students, citing the sensationalized narratives promoted by politicians and the national media. In response to the mass suspensions following a failure to come to an agreement in negotiations, an “autonomous group” of student activists occupied Hamilton Hall at about 12.30am on 30 April.

Within hours, the administration imposed a campus-wide lockdown, preventing all students from accessing vital resources – food and medical assistance – as well as one another – during final exam season. The overwhelming majority of us woke up shocked at this disproportionate university response. Subsequently, the administration denied EMTs and legal observers access to campus – a clear demonstration of what they were trying to accomplish: isolating the occupiers.

As the sky turned dark on Tuesday night, students received an ominous “shelter-in-place” directive. While we frantically called our parents in fear, NYPD trucks and correctional buses lined our streets, barring any escape from Morningside Heights. We were trapped in our dorms or outside in the rain as the raid escalated. Police penned bystanders into nearby buildings and steadily forcibly removed all remaining reporters from campus.

As Columbia lay void with the occupiers strategically alienated, the NYPD struck. The action, while in response to rules violations, was distinctly militaristic and disproportionate. Though NYPD footage showed that the officers, including Swat and strategic response teams, significantly outnumbered the protesters, they utilized flash-bang grenades, swung batons and drew firearms on the few dozen unarmed students. The police continued to limit video documentation by flashing lights at phones recording from the nearby dorms.

The few clips available captured police pushing students down the stairs, an unconscious student lying in front of Hamilton Hall, and hostile engagements between officers and bystanders. A student was even denied permission to leave a building to retrieve essential heart condition medication. The administration claimed to intend to restore safety and orderby authorizing these hundreds of NYPD officers to commandeer our school. Instead, they terrified, sickened and traumatized us.

Right now we should be focused on our final exams. Instead, the university’s actions have made it impossible for us to focus on anything besides our peers’ physical safety and access to food. The misrepresentation of events perpetuated by administration has allowed them to justify extreme police force and brutality against their own students. The administration has betrayed us. As student representatives, we detest this false, harmful portrayal of our community. It is only because of student journalism, such as the Columbia Spectator and WKCR-FM’s 24-hour radio coverage, that we have started reclaiming our narrative.

We urge you to listen to us – not political figures, not the radical fringes and not misguided media. Across the country, non-violent protests and encampments on college campuses have been touted by administrations, media and bad-faith actors to be hateful without proper investigative journalism. While this has been a major topic in the news cycle recently, rarely do we see any student perspective represented other than a few token quotes. When we, a group of 60 and more elected to represent the student body, tried to share our voices through this piece, we were turned down by publication after publication.

We now ask you to give us, the students, our voices back. Not to turn attention towards ourselves, but towards where it rightfully belongs: the Middle East.

  • This statement was passed in the Columbia College Student Council by a margin of 22-4-2

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