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US: Columbia University begins suspending pro-Palestinian protesters as encampment talks stall

Columbia warned that students who refused to vacate tent encampments would be suspended and be ineligible to complete the semester in good standing. The students have demanded divestment from Israel and amnesty for students and faculty involved in the protests.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee New York Published on: April 30, 2024 8:17 IST
Columbia University, pro Palestinian protests
Image Source : REUTERS Protests continue on the Columbia University campus in support of Palestinians amid the Israel-Hamas war.

New York: Columbia University on Monday began suspending pro-Palestinian protesters who have refused to remove tent encampments in its New York City campus days after the school declared a stalemate in talks that seek an end to the polarising protest in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war. University President Nemat Minouche Shafik said days of negotiations between student organisers and academic leaders had failed to make a breakthrough in removing the tents.

The crackdown at Columbia, which became the flashpoint of protests across several US universities against Israel's war in Gaza, came as police at the University of Texas at Austin arrested dozens of students whom they doused with pepper spray at a pro-Palestinian rally. Demonstrators are sparring over the war and its mounting death toll and the number of arrests on US campuses is approaching 1,000 as the final days of classes wrap up.

At the University of Texas at Austin, an attorney said at least 40 demonstrators had been arrested on Monday on charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct, some of them dragged by officers in riot gear who encircled about 100 sitting protesters. Another group of demonstrators trapped police and a van full of arrestees between buildings, creating a mass of bodies pushing and shoving and prompting the officers to use pepper spray and flash-bang devices to clear the crowd.

The protests have even spread to Europe, with French police removing dozens of students from the Sorbonne university after pro-Palestinian protesters occupied the main courtyard. In Canada, student protest camps have popped up at the University of Ottawa, McGill University in Montreal and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, according to The Canadian Press.

What is happening at Columbia University?

Columbia University sent a letter on Monday morning warning that students who did not vacate the encampment by the stipulated time and sign a form promising to abide by university policies would face suspension and become ineligible to complete the semester in good standing. However, some students have opted to risk suspension rather than calling off protests.

"The university has conducted itself with obstinacy and arrogance, refusing to be flexible on some of our most basic points. That said, we were engaging in good faith negotiations until the administration cut them off under threat of suspensions where we asked for amnesty, they gave us more discipline," said Sueda Polat, one of the protesters. Nas Issa, a New York-based graphic designer, said, "Yeah, I think it's an absolute disgrace. I'm an alumnae of this university. I am absolutely disgusted by the way that the administration has walked away from the bargaining table after offering the students nothing but crumbs when the stakes are genocide and the demand is divestment."

"We have begun suspending students as part of this next phase of our efforts to ensure safety on our campus," said Ben Chang, a university spokesperson, at a briefing on Monday evening. "The encampment has created an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty and a noisy distraction that interferes with the teaching, learning and preparing for final exams."

Students protesting the Israel-Hamas war are demanding schools cut financial ties to Israel and divest from companies enabling its monthslong conflict. Some Jewish students say the protests have veered into antisemitism and made them afraid to set foot on campus as graduation nears, partly prompting a heavier hand from universities.

However, Shafik has asserted that Columbia would not divest from finances in Israel, instead offering to invest in health and education in Gaza and make Columbia's direct investment holdings more transparent. Protesters have vowed to keep their encampment on the Manhattan campus until Columbia meets three demands: divestment, transparency in university finances, and amnesty for students and faculty disciplined for their part in the protests.

"These repulsive scare tactics mean nothing compared to the deaths of over 34,000 Palestinians. We will not move until Columbia meets our demands or we are moved by force," leaders of the Columbia Student Apartheid Divest coalition said in a statement read at a news conference following the deadline. Shafik faced an outcry from many students, faculty and outside observers for summoning New York City police two weeks ago to dismantle the encampment.

Student protests continue to spread

The pro-Palestinian rallies have sparked intense campus debate over where school officials should draw the line between freedom of expression and hate speech. Students protesting Israel's military offensive in Gaza, including some Jewish peace activists, have said they are being censured as antisemitic merely for criticising the Israeli government or for expressing support for Palestinian rights.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, where opposing sides clashed over the weekend, pro-Israeli activists set up a large screen and loudspeakers to play a tape loop of the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants. The video appears aimed at countering pro-Hamas chants that seeped into campus protests in support of Palestinian civilians besieged in Gaza.

UCLA also stepped up security around a pro-Palestinian encampment, consisting of more than 50 tents surrounded by metal fencing near the main administration building on campus. Civil rights groups have criticized law enforcement tactics on some campuses, such as Atlanta's Emory University and the University of Texas at Austin, where police in riot gear and on horseback moved against protesters last week, taking dozens into custody before charges were dropped for lack of probable cause.

However, Northwestern University has managed to reach an agreement with students and faculty who represent the majority of protesters on its campus near Chicago, marking a rare change. The school allows peaceful demonstrations through the June 1 end of spring classes and in exchange, requires removal of all tents except one for aid, and restricts the demonstration area to allow only students, faculty and staff unless the university approves otherwise.

(with inputs from agencies)

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