Columbia Students Arrested After Pro-Palestinian Protest Face Uncertain Consequences

Many of the more than 100 Columbia University and Barnard College students who were arrested after refusing to leave a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus on Thursday woke up to a chilly new reality this week: Columbia said that their IDs would soon stop working, and some of them would not be able to finish the semester.

The students who were arrested were released with summonses. The university said all of the 100 or so students involved in the protest had been informed that they were suspended.

For some of those students, that means they must vacate their student housing, with just weeks before the semester ends.

Yet whatever the consequences, several of the students said in interviews that they were determined to keep protesting Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza.

They said that after being loaded onto buses with their hands tied, they had sung all the way to police headquarters. Many expressed a renewed belief in their cause, and were glad that the eyes of the nation were on Columbia and Barnard, its sister college.

The protests, the arrests and the subsequent disciplinary action came a day after the congressional testimony this week of Columbia’s president, Nemat Shafik, at a hearing about antisemitism on campus. Columbia has said there have been a number of antisemitic episodes, including one attack, and many Jewish students have seen the protests as antisemitic.

Responding to aggressive questioning from the House committee, Columbia officials said some of the protesters on campus had used antisemitic language that might warrant discipline.

But on campus fury was building. The administration called in the Police Department to quell the protests. Arrests — at least 108 — soon followed.

The aggressive response left students shaken — but also, they say, energized.

Among the protesters, whose demands included that Columbia divest from companies connected to Israel, was one particularly high-profile name: Isra Hirsi, a Barnard student who is the daughter of Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota.

At the congressional hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Omar had questioned Columbia administrators about their treatment of Palestinian and Muslim students. As Ms. Omar spoke in Washington, her daughter was in New York helping to organize the campus encampment of about 50 tents.

Ms. Hirsi, a junior, said in an interview that while she had been “mentally preparing” for being arrested, she was “shocked” at what actually unfolded. She left a precinct house at around 9:30 p.m. “So I was in zip ties for over seven hours,” she said.

Since being released, Ms. Hirsi, 21, said her professors had been supportive, although she was unsure what the future held. Still, she added that she was glad students had put a spotlight on the “hypocrisy coming from the Columbia University administration.”

“Everybody is invigorated,” she said.

“Even at this moment in time, they’re still holding down the south lawn,” she continued. “I think it’s beautiful.”

The next several weeks will be an uncertain period for those who were arrested, as well as for the university’s leaders. Many student protesters remained defiant after the arrests and vowed to continue their demonstrations.

For the unknown number of students who were suspended, a major shake-up looms as the semester ends.

Police officials said the students had received summonses for trespassing. The students said they expected to make initial court appearances next month. All of the students who were at the encampment have been suspended, university officials said, though it was not clear if every student at the encampment had been arrested.

The suspensions prohibit students from attending university events or getting into campus spaces, including dining halls, classrooms and libraries, the university said. It was not clear how long those prohibitions would last.

Some Barnard students said that they had received unexpected email warnings giving them 15 minutes to pack their belongings. Staff members would then escort any suspended students out of their dormitories, these students said they were told.

Some students, including Ms. Hirsi, said they were now bouncing between friends’ apartments. She said that she would fight her interim suspension. She said she had not yet returned to her room because doing so would require going with a chaperone from Barnard’s public safety team.

“I don’t really like the idea of that,” Ms. Hirsi said. “It makes me feel like more of a criminal than I think that I am.”

On Friday, Ms. Omar posted a message on social media saying that her daughter was not a lawbreaker, but a leader. She wrote that she was “enormously proud of her” for “pushing her school to stand against genocide.”

“Stepping up to change what you can’t tolerate is why we as a country have the right to speech, assembly, and petition enshrined in our constitution,” Ms. Omar wrote.

In a sharp editorial published this week, the campus newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator, denounced Dr. Shafik’s decision to arrest students and called on her to do more to protect protesters who have been doxxed, saying she had “demonstrated a complete lack of consistency in enforcing her principles, failing to differentiate between speech she personally opposes and speech warranting suppression.”

Dr. Shafik, who goes by Minouche, said in a letter on Thursday announcing her decision to summon the Police Department that the encampment had disrupted campus life and had created an atmosphere of intimidation.

Dr. Shafik said of calling in the police that she had taken “this extraordinary step because these are extraordinary circumstances.”

But many of the protesters, including several Jewish students, objected to the administration’s characterization of the tent demonstration. One Ph.D. candidate at Columbia who declined to give her last name said she was standing by the morals and ethics her Jewish faith had ingrained in her — not menacing her classmates.

Another Jewish sophomore at the university, Iris Hsiang, said it was the college — rather than her peers — that had made her feel unsafe. Her only crime, she said, was “sitting and singing on the lawns.”

She added that the coming commemoration of Passover, which marks Jewish freedom from slavery in Egypt, weighed on her. It was part of why she felt compelled to join the encampment.

“Judaism means standing for the liberation of all people,” she said. “And ‘never again’ means never again for anyone.”

Ms. Hsiang was among the students who were shuffled into a series of holding cells and processed at police headquarters over the course of eight hours. Men and women were split up, and officers eventually cut off some of the zip ties. A number of Muslim students struggled to find space for their daily prayers, protesters said.

The Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The mood was anxious at times. But the students said they tried to maintain their morale.

“We were chanting all the way through until we were put in our cells,” said Marie Adele Grosso, a 19-year-old Barnard student.

Ms. Grosso said she joined the encampment in part to follow a model of activism her family had set. Her family has loved ones in Gaza.

“I’ve known for a while that this is something I would be willing to be arrested for,” she said.

When her grandmother heard about what had happened on campus, she sent her a text.

“She was proud of me,” Ms. Grosso said.

Eryn Davis and Karla Marie Sanford contributed reporting.

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