Arrests at Columbia University as New York City police clear Gaza protest

Violent clashes erupt at University of California in Los Angeles between pro-Palestinian protesters and pro-Israeli counter-demonstrators.

Hundreds of New York City police officers have entered the Columbia University campus, taking many people into custody, in the latest escalation in Gaza protests that have swept campuses across the United States.

Live television images showed police entering the university in upper Manhattan, which has been the focal point of student protests against Israel’s war in Gaza, in which more than 34,500 Palestinians have been killed.

After entering the site shortly after 9pm on Tuesday (01:00 GMT on Wednesday), some officers approached Hamilton Hall, the administrative building, which students began occupying early on Tuesday morning after the management said it had begun suspending students who had refused to meet a previous deadline to disperse.

They had renamed the building “Hind’s Hall”, in memory of six-year-old Palestinian girl Hind Rajab who was killed in Gaza in February.

“We’re clearing it out,” police in a riot unit yelled as they marched up to the barricaded entrance to the building, while dozens more officers moved on to the main protest camp.

Police officers on a ladder waiting to climb through a window. An officer is already inside.
Police gained access to Hamilton Hall through a second-floor window [David Dee Delgado/Reuters]

Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine said in a post on X that the police officers were “wearing riot gear” and that “multiple blocks have been barricaded off”.

Police officers were seen in a long line, climbing into the building via a ladder extended from the top of a truck into a second-storey window.

Shortly afterwards, officers were seen leading multiple protesters, their hands tied behind their backs with plastic zip ties, to police vehicles outside the campus gates. Some 30 to 40 people were taken from Hamilton Hall, The Associated Press news agency reported.

“Free, free, free Palestine!” chanted protesters outside the building. Others yelled, “Let the students go!”

The move to clear the protest came exactly 56 years since police swept into Hamilton Hall to end a 1968 protest by students against racism and the Vietnam War.

‘They’re students’

Dozens of protesters barricaded the entrances of Hamilton Hall after occupying the building on Tuesday. A student organiser who spoke to Al Jazeera said the occupation group was separate from the group that had established a camp on the campus lawn.

At an evening news briefing held a few hours before police entered the campus, New York City Mayor Eric Adams and city police officials alleged the Hamilton Hall takeover had been instigated by “outside agitators” who lacked any affiliation with Columbia and were known to law enforcement for provoking lawlessness.

Adams suggested some student protesters were not fully aware of the “external actors” in their midst.

A spokesperson for the university said police had been asked onto the campus as a last resort and would remain until May 17, when graduation events come to an end.

“After the university learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalised, and blockaded, we were left with no choice,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that its public safety personnel had been forced out of the building and one facilities worker “threatened”.

“The decision to reach out to the NYPD [New York Police Department] was in response to the actions of the protesters, not the cause they are championing,” the statement said. “We have made it clear that the life of campus cannot be endlessly interrupted by protesters who violate the rules and the law.”

One of the student leaders of the protest, Mahmoud Khalil, a Palestinian student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, disputed the claims.

“They’re students,” he told the Reuters news agency.

A woman is arrested at Columbia. She is sitting on the floor. Police are around her.
Police made dozens of arrests as they cleared the protesters from Columbia’s campus [David Dee Delgado/Reuters]

The protesters are calling for the university to sell off any investments linked to Israel, be transparent about its financial ties to the country, and provide amnesty from any disciplinary measures to all students participating in the rallies.

Cameron Jones, a lead organiser at Columbia University for the Jewish Voice for Peace activist group, told Al Jazeera that there is a groundswell of demands for the university’s leadership to resign. He said he expected a “large, large blowback from the student body, from the faculty, from alumni” in weeks to come.

“There is large support for [Columbia president] Manouche Shafik to resign … and for a whole investigation of everything that has happened in the past few weeks,” he said. “We will not stand for this violent police brutality on our campus and we will stand up for what we believe in.

“We have seen the university try again and again to silence pro-Palestine voices on campus and every time they try to silence us, we only get louder. We only bring larger numbers to our rallies, larger numbers to our protests.”

Violent clashes at UCLA

Meanwhile, demonstrations at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) took a violent turn, with confrontations between pro-Palestinian protesters and what appeared to be pro-Israeli counter-demonstrators who had entered from outside the university campus.

The trouble is believed to have started early on Wednesday morning when fireworks were thrown into a solidarity encampment occupied for the past couple of days by peaceful protesters opposed to Israel’s war on Gaza.

Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds reported that after an hour of violence, police positioned nearby had not intervened. However, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass posted on X that police were now responding to requests of the UCLA administration to separate the two sides.

“You see the violence being instigated and perpetrated by this vigilante mob of pro-Israel supporters,” said Reynolds. “They appear to be … largely people who are not of student age and they’re not from the UCLA campus, but what they’re doing is trying to harass and attack the pro-Palestinian demonstrators and it’s getting very violent.”

Al Jazeera footage showed students trying to defend the camp but being menaced with sticks and stones. “It’s shocking, this has been until now a peaceful protest and there’s been no violence on the part of pro-Palestinian supporters demanding the university divest from Israel.”

The mob, Reynolds said, reminded him of “settler violence on the [occupied] West Bank without the use of as much lethal force, but this is clearly a violent, uncontrolled mob that is bent on mayhem”. One of the pro-Israel demonstrators carried a large yellow flag with the word “Messiah” on it. “These are symbols of radical, far-right Jewish groups,” said Reynolds.

It was not immediately known how the group had organised.

Nationwide protests

Columbia’s protests began on April 17, inspiring demonstrations that now stretch from California in the west to Massachusetts in the east, and come as universities prepare for end-of-year graduation ceremonies.

More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested over the last two weeks on campuses in states including Texas, Utah, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico, Connecticut, Louisiana, California and New Jersey, some after confrontations with police in riot gear.

At the University of Southern Florida in Tampa on Tuesday, police used tear gas on students who set up a Gaza solidarity camp and arrested two people, according to videos from journalists and witnesses verified by Al Jazeera.

Sixteen people were arrested at the University of New Mexico as police forcefully removed pro-Palestine protesters occupying the college’s student union building. A university spokesperson said five of those arrested were students of the University of New Mexico, while the 11 others had no connection with the institution.

Students arrested on Monday during pro-Palestinian protests at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) were greeted by their supporters as they were released from the Travis County Jail.

Travis County Attorney General Delia Garza said 65 people arrested at UT Austin had been charged with criminal trespass.

Meanwhile, at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, university administrators reached an agreement with students to bring their protests to a peaceful end.

In a statement, Brown President Christina Paxson said the deal included the students removing their protests from the university grounds in exchange for the institution considering divesting from Israel.

She said five students would be invited to meet five members of the Corporation of Brown University this month to present their arguments to divest Brown’s endowment from “companies enabling and profiting from the genocide in Gaza”.

The board will then vote on the proposal in October.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies