Columbia protesters occupy Hamilton Hall as university standoff escalates

Demonstrators take over Hamilton Hall in escalation of antiwar protests.

Students have taken over a building at Columbia University as the standoff escalates between university authorities and protesters against Israel’s war on Gaza.

Protesters moved to occupy Hamilton Hall at the university in New York early on Tuesday after the management said it had begun suspending students who had refused to meet a deadline to disperse on Monday. The move threatens to escalate the standoff, which has seen protests over Israel’s war on Gaza – in which Israel has killed more than 34,400 Palestinians – spread across the country.

Video footage showed protesters on Columbia’s Manhattan campus locking arms in front of Hamilton Hall early on Tuesday and carrying furniture and metal barricades to the building. Dozens of protesters barricaded the entrances and unfurled a Palestinian flag out of a window.  A student organiser who spoke to Al Jazeera said that the group that had occupied Hamilton Hall was separate from the group encamped on the campus lawn.

The protesters who have entered the building now face expulsion.

Hamilton Hall, which protesters said they have now dubbed “Hind Hall”, is one of several buildings that were previously occupied during a 1968 civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protest on the campus.

“An autonomous group reclaimed Hind’s Hall, previously known as ‘Hamilton Hall,’ in honor of Hind Rajab, a martyr murdered at the hands of the genocidal Israeli state at the age of six years old,” Columbia University’s Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a coalition representing pro-Palestinian student organisations, posted on X.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) says that Israeli forces killed Hind Rajab, who had been on a call for hours with PRCS dispatchers as she begged for help after her family’s car came under fire in northern Gaza. She had been the sole survivor, but was later found dead, along with two PRCS rescue workers sent to retrieve her in an ambulance.

An Al Jazeera investigation found that there were Israeli tanks near the car when it was fired upon, with their guns pointed at it. It also found that the PRCS ambulance was destroyed and appeared to have been run over by a tank.

Student radio station WKCR-FM broadcast a play-by-play of the hall’s takeover, which occurred hours after the protesters defied the Monday 2pm deadline to leave the encampment of about 120 tents or face suspension. Columbia says it has now begun enacting that threat.

Protesters said on X that students plan to remain at the hall until the university concedes to their demands: complete divestment from finances in Israel, transparency about financial ties to the country, and amnesty from any disciplinary measures for all students participating in the protests.

“We demand our voices be heard against the mass slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza,” their post said, adding that they hold Columbia University as “complicit in this violence and this is why we protest”.

Hamilton Hall itself has a long history of student protest. In 1968, anti-Vietnam War protesters barricaded themselves in the hall, renaming it “Malcolm X Liberation College”. And in 1985, students blockaded the hall for three weeks, demanding that the university divest from apartheid South Africa. They renamed the building “Mandela Hall”, in honour of the South African liberation leader, and later post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela.

Campus restrictions

In an email sent out on Tuesday, Columbia University’s administration said that access to the university’s main Morningside campus, where the protests have been taking place, would be restricted to students who live on campus and essential employees only, with no media access.

“This access restriction will remain in place until circumstances allow otherwise,” the email said.

Reporting from outside the campus, Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey said that a student organiser on campus had told her that the “mood was calm” there, and estimated that there were more student protesters there on Tuesday than there had been on Monday.

“Clearly the university does not want a repeat of what happened two weeks ago when they sent the NYPD [New York Police Department] onto the campus to arrest students,” Saloomey said. “That only outraged the student community and brought more supporters out, and started this movement that we’re seeing nationally at other campuses.”

Saloomey added that the university administration was under pressure from trustees to get things under control before graduation ceremonies take place in two weeks, and that students were nervous that police would be called in again.

Nationwide crackdown continues

Universities across the United States are grappling with growing protests with an eye on end-of-year commencement ceremonies.

Some are continuing negotiations, while others have turned to ultimatums and force, which has resulted in clashes with police.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, police moved in Tuesday morning to clear one encampment, detaining some protesters.

TV footage showed police at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond on Monday evening pushing and shoving away protesters, with students saying tear gas and pepper spray were deployed.

The demonstrations continue to attract national and international attention.

United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk voiced his concern at the heavy-handed tactics used to disperse the campus protests.

“Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental to society,” Turk said, adding that “incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints – whether real or assumed – must be strongly repudiated”.

The White House on Tuesday chimed in on the occupation of Hamilton Hall, calling it “absolutely the wrong approach”.

“That is not an example of peaceful protest,” a White House spokesman said.

But speaking to Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi at the site of another pro-Palestine campus protest at Washington DC’s George Washington University, one protester rejected criticism of the protest movement, including attempts to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

“Our demands are clear, they have nothing to do with the Jewish people,” Miriam, a George Washington student, said. “As a Jew myself, I feel more safe being Jewish here in this encampment than I do outside of this encampment. And that is because everyone here believes in collective liberation for all people, I know that I’m included in that.”

Miriam labelled attempts to call protests anti-Semitic “a complete diversion tactic” from Israel’s war on Gaza.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies