What Prompted the City College of New York to Call the N.Y.P.D.

It was after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, and the administration building of a college in Upper Manhattan had been ransacked. Protesters were wielding lit flares, the campus was descending into chaos, and the college’s security guards were outnumbered and exhausted.

The college president faced a momentous decision: Watch the chaos grow, or ask the New York Police Department to restore order?

And so Vincent Boudreau, president of the City College of New York, invited the police onto the campus.

While most of the attention this week has focused on protests at elite universities like Columbia and Brown, the events at City College were no less disruptive, and resulted in more arrests. But City College, “the Harvard of the proletariat,” has a unique place in New York, with a mandate to educate the poorest residents, and a long history of radical politics and protest. To many in the City College community, welcoming a police presence onto the Harlem campus was unthinkable.

“The unwritten rule was: Don’t call the police,” said Michele Wallace, who joined the college faculty as a professor of English in 1989 and is now an emeritus professor. She grew up in Harlem and, as a high school student in 1969, brought food to protesters at the campus. She described decades of work by administrators and faculty members to support a robust, sometimes radical student protest culture without engaging the police.

Mindful of the institution’s activist past, Mr. Boudreau said he had been reluctant to call in the police during the latest round of protests. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators had created an encampment in a quad on the college’s campus on April 18, one day after a similar encampment started at Columbia, about 10 blocks south. Until the alarming escalation on Tuesday night, he said, he had been determined not to interfere with what had been peaceful protest.

“I know that for many of you, the idea of an N.Y.P.D. presence on campus is anathema,” Mr. Boudreau wrote in an open letter to the college community after Tuesday. “Some of you may still believe that, even granting the facts laid out in this memo, that our resort to external assistance was unacceptable. I will disagree.”

Shortly before midnight that Tuesday, officers in riot gear waded into the crowd to break up the demonstration; they arrested about 170 people at the campus. A video posted on social media by the Police Department shows an officer scaling a flagpole to pull down a Palestinian flag, which he tossed to the ground. Officers then replaced it with an American flag. It was a bracing image for a college that considers itself a national leader in encouraging student activism.

New York Police Department leaders and Mayor Eric Adams have blamed much of the disturbance at protests on “outside agitators,” people with no connection to the colleges at which they are held. Mr. Boudreau also agreed with this sentiment. Protesters countered that many are students, alumni and members of the staff or the faculty of the City University of New York system, where City College is the flagship institution.

Among those taken to jail was Achmat Akkad, who lives in Harlem and is a graduate student at John Jay College, another CUNY institution. He learned about the demonstrations at City College from a post on the social media app X at 9:46 p.m. by the activist group Within Our Lifetime, which read in part: “Brave protesters are digging in and surrounded by NYPD. WE NEED BODIES AND NUMBERS AT CCNY RIGHT NOW.”

“I literally just finished dinner and walked across the street,” Mr. Akkad said. “Calling people ‘outside agitators’ makes it sound like Palestinians from Gaza came here to start an uprising.” Mr. Akkad said he had been standing outside the campus when he was tackled and handcuffed. He was given a summons for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

Most of the campus is open to the surrounding neighborhood, and demonstrators were free to wander among its buildings for days. But by Tuesday afternoon, with most student protesters camped in the heart of campus, City College security officers had erected barriers at nearby intersections and sidewalks, Mr. Boudreau said, sealing off the quad. Anyone who wished to leave was escorted out, he added.

The encampment was mostly quiet until Tuesday evening, when about 300 other pro-Palestinian demonstrators arrived from outside the campus, followed by dozens of police officers. The two groups of protesters, separated by temporary barriers with a line of police officers between them, fed off each other. At one point in the evening, some protesters lit road flares, their red sparks and flames licking the underside of a City College archway.

“If these were our students, they never would have done that,” Mr. Boudreau said of the flares. “We have a tradition of managing protests in a way that allows protesters to have full freedom to express themselves and exert pressure on us, the administration.”

Also on Tuesday evening, protesters inside the campus sprinted away from the barricades and broke into an administration building, where they smashed computers in the student financial aid office, Mr. Boudreau said. The protesters tried to barricade themselves inside the building but were removed by campus security officers after about 10 minutes.

Of the 31 people arrested inside the administration building, one was a faculty member at the college, and another was a student, Mr. Boudreau said. The rest had no known connection to the college. (Prosecutors charged only 22 people in connection with the break-in, but it was not clear from court records how many were affiliated with the college; the reason for the discrepancy was not clear.)

“I’m very glad that they were not students at City, because that means they won’t be suspended, thrown out or put in jail,” said Ms. Wallace, the emeritus English professor. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

In the aftermath of the arrests at City College and Columbia, conflicting claims about the origins of the demonstrators have become a flashpoint in the larger argument over the protest movement’s legitimacy.

“There is a movement to radicalize young people,” Mr. Adams said Wednesday in a news conference.

Hadeeqa Arzoo, a sophomore at City College who is studying international relations and political science and who helped organize the encampment, said she had invited support from people unaffiliated with City College.

“We welcome the entire community to join us in our efforts to resist and escalate for Gaza,” Ms. Arzoo, 20, said.

Before the sudden eruption of violence Tuesday night, the quad had been a place of calm retreat. The encampment’s organizers invited a New York-based choir of women and nonbinary singers, the Resistance Revival Chorus, to serenade the crowd. The group happily accepted, said Zakiyah Ansari, a choir member. Shortly before tensions flared at the college’s gates on Tuesday night, the chorus sang “This Joy,” a gospel song.

“These spaces are steeped in love,” said Ms. Ansari, 57.

Bernard Mokam, Liset Cruz, Gaya Gupta, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Eliza Fawcett contributed reporting.

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