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Pro-Palestine Campus Protests Shouldn’t be Snuffed Out by Police

Our history shows us that non-violent debate is good for society.

Protests at City College in New York
Alfonso Lozano del Rey / Shutterstock
By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

As a wave of pro-Palestine non-violent protest encampments sprout up across college campuses in New York City, New York State, and around the country, campus and city leaders must remember our history.

Political expression and activism are deeply rooted in New York. The city’s campuses and public spaces have a history of accommodating large and ongoing demonstrations, including controversial actions from sit-ins on campuses to weeks-long protests in our parks. Speaking out, difficult debate, and inquiry are part of the student experience. They are, in fact, a part of the New York experience.

Sadly, many of our leaders seem to have forgotten our history.

In 1968, hundreds of students at Columbia University occupied five buildings. The students barricaded themselves inside the buildings for a week to protest the university’s military ties as part of a broader anti-Vietnam War movement.

Then, the university called in the NYPD. What followed was one of the largest mass-arrests in New York City history. NYPD officers arrested 700 students, many violently. More than 150 students were hospitalized. In the aftermath of these arrests, Columbia’s leadership went on to create policies designed to ensure that what happened on April 30, 1968 would never happen again and that students’ right to non-violent protest would be protected.

But Columbia tarnished that commitment when the school’s President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik asked the NYPD to dismantle an encampment of students who had set up tents on the university’s lawn. More than 100 students were arrested.

As Juan Gonzales — who was one of the leaders of the 1968 protests — noted, this time the university acted against the protesters even more quickly than they did 56 years ago.

“I think what is really unusual about this process is that here the university moved in very quickly, and also these students were not disrupting classes,” Gonzales said on "Democracy Now!" “We occupied buildings. We did not allow classes to go forward in 1968. So, the disproportionate nature of the response of the university, the quickness with which it responded, without even consulting or listening to the faculty, is really astounding.”

New Yorkers should be able to express their views on Israel and Palestine without having to fear becoming a target of the NYPD or a victim of police abuse.

Shortly after police dismantled the encampment, another, much bigger one sprouted up to take its place. Then another encampment briefly took hold at New York University before the NYPD dismantled that one too. At NYU, the department deployed its notoriously violent Strategic Response Group, which used pepper spray and violently arrested 120 demonstrators. The university then quickly erected a temporary wall to prevent another encampment from appearing.

As universities have moved to squash non-violent protests, more have sprouted up, and some students have moved to forms of civil disobedience like occupying buildings. Even when demonstrators deploy these more aggressive tactics, universities and police departments must do everything they can to avoid more escalation and violence.

This did not happen on April 30 when City College of New York and Columbia University officials authorized the NYPD to enter campus, where they arrested nearly 300 pro-Palestine student demonstrators.

Reports the NYCLU has received suggest that Strategic Response Group officers pepper sprayed, threw to the ground, and even drew weapons on students, resulting in injuries. We heard that the NYPD arrested local bystanders and those who it had given the OK to demonstrate in designated areas.

The NYPD also established blocks-wide ‘exclusion zones,’ around campuses, which seemed more like militarized zones. These no-go areas shielded NYPD activity from the press, legal observers, and NYCLU protest monitors, whom police harassed and intimidated, raising concerns about press freedom and the transparency that is critical to accountability.

We need creative, non-police thinking that furthers dialogue and engagement. While other campuses across the country have engaged demonstrators in productive dialogue, at Columbia and City College on April 30, the NYPD responded instead with intimidation and violence.

But even the NYPD doesn’t always arrest demonstrators. Sadly, the department’s decision-making can seem like it’s based on demonstrators’ viewpoints, rather than actual risks to public safety.

In the past, we’ve seen the NYPD treat demonstrators differently depending on what they’re protesting. This happened during the 2020 George Floyd protests when far-right white supremacist groups were treated with kid gloves, while Black Lives Matter demonstrators were often brutalized.

This same dynamic was on display on April 25, when our protest monitors watched hundreds of pro-Israel protesters, joined by far-right Christian nationalists descend on Columbia for a "March for Israel." They marched in the road, assaulted counter protesters, and climbed the gates of Columbia’s campus.

These protesters used sound devices and marched in the roadway, two things that have led to the immediate arrest of pro-Palestine protesters over the last six months. Police also allowed demonstrators to move freely between barricades, while police have arrested pro-Palestine demonstrators after even touching these same barriers.

As with nearly any protest movement, you can find evidence of violent, repellent speech by some pro-Palestine protesters, just as you can find hateful, despicable statements at pro-Israel rallies. While we must condemn hate and bigotry, officials should be careful not to paint protestors with a broad brush. They should not conflate political criticism with hate, or use isolated incidents as a pretext to silence political views they oppose.

We’ve monitored pro-Palestine protests for more than six months now, and these demonstrations have been largely non-violent. When there has been violence, more often than not it has been police officers, called in by university administrators, who have instigated it.

There is no doubt that the protest activity makes some students feel threatened or intimidated to participate in campus life. Universities of course have an obligation to protect student safety on campus and they are obliged to take action to stop and prevent discrimination and harassment. But it is also the responsibility of university officials to help students feel safe amidst political disagreements, and to differentiate political disagreements from hate, harassment and discrimination.

Universities must also apply free speech principles even-handedly. Officials do students a serious disservice when they respond to the concerns of one group at the expense of another, or when they assume all individuals within any group are responsible for harassment or bias by another member of the group.

New Yorkers should be able to express their views on Israel and Palestine without having to fear becoming a target of the NYPD or a victim of police abuse. Students non-violently demonstrating should never face down a baton or a gun.

Our history shows us that non-violent debate is good for society, and that it shouldn’t be snuffed out by police – especially not on campus.

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