NYPD arrests students, clears Columbia University campus of pro-Palestinian protest encampment

NEW YORK — NYPD officers with batons and wearing helmets took dozens of Columbia University students into custody Thursday after groups protesting the war in Gaza refused to take down a two-day encampment zone.

Hundreds of cops entered campus in the early afternoon, with several “school buses” on standby to transport those arrested. Students continued to chant on the lawn throughout the day, and even began setting up new tents just a few yards away.

“I regret that all of these attempts to resolve the situation were rejected by the students involved,” university president Minouche Shafik said in a message to students. “As a result, NYPD officers are now on campus and the process of clearing the encampment is underway.”

No students have been criminally charged yet, cops said Thursday afternoon. The protesters were being processed at NYPD headquarters at One Police Plaza; most are expected to be released with a summons.

The action came the day after Shafik defended the administration’s response to campus antisemitism before Congress. Tensions over the last two days have been climbing at Columbia amid clashes with the police and student suspensions in response to the campus encampment.

Students had pledged that the demonstration, a series of green tents called the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, would remain until the university meets their demand to divest Columbia’s finances from companies and institutions that profit from Israel. Signs declared the encampment a “liberated zone,” and demanded “ceasefire now” and “free Palestine,” according to photos shared with the Daily News on Thursday morning.

One upperclassman saw the last of the protestors removed from the lawn and led to buses. He described the heavy police presence as “intimidating.”

“This is our campus, this is where we spend our time,” he said. “It seems ridiculous that the president would call the police in to prevent us from basically expressing ourselves, especially for such a serious and important cause.”

A pre-med student estimated 30 to 50 protestors were arrested. He said he witnessed one person on the ground who was picked up and ziptied at the hands and feet.

The arrests he observed were not “super violent,” he said. “But it obviously wasn’t gentle.”

Shafik, in her communication, noted that protests have a “storied history” at Columbia and “are an essential component of free speech in America and on our campus.”

But, she said, “the current encampment violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life, and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

Prior to the NYPD moving in, at least three pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University were suspended Thursday, while a handful of protesters outside the campus gates were taken into custody earlier, university officials and cops said. The number of suspensions, including the daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, was expected to grow as more students are linked to the encampment.

Student organizers quickly blasted the suspensions in a press release and on social media, which they said means students have lost access to their food, housing and medical center.

“As of a few minutes ago, I received notice from Barnard administration that I had been suspended for my involvement in the illicit solidarity encampment,” Maryam Iqbal said in a clip posted to Instagram.

“I want to make it very clear to Columbia administration and Barnard administration that I refuse to be silenced in my demand for divestment, and I will remain vocally opposed to genocide in Gaza,” said Iqbal, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, which was kicked off campus in the fall. “Barnard and Columbia will look back at this moment and capitalize on the legacy of their student activists, as they always do, and we will not allow for this to be co opted when that time comes.”

Those arrested outside the campus gates Thursday slept on the street in support of the encampment, the student group said.

The campus is closed to the public all this week, with a Columbia ID necessary to enter the entryway gates, according to university communications.

Students spent the night in the tents on the lawn, despite the rain, according to Students for Justice in Palestine. As of Thursday morning, the student group said Columbia administrators had agreed to one of their demands to provide financial transparency on investments.

Free speech organization PEN America criticized the administration’s response.

“It is disturbing to see a campus move so quickly to arrest students for peacefully expressing their political views within the free speech zone,” Kristen Shahverdian, program director of campus free speech, “and it is even more alarming that this action came amidst political pressure to crack down on pro-Palestinian expression on campus after yesterday’s hearing in the House.”

After the congressional hearing, about 125 pro-Israel and 100 pro-Palestinian protesters gathered on Broadway, with one pro-Palestinian protester arrested who ignored repeated requests by police to lower the 15-foot pole for safety reasons, the individual and cops said. Another protester was arrested for assaulting a police officer.

“We are devoid of any fear right now,” the group said in a statement on social media. “We have the student collective mobilizing behind us. And this has given us immense power. We have the control now.”


(With Barry Williams and Tim Balk.)