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'Kids met with guns:' Hundreds arrested after police raid Gaza solidarity camps in New York City

Crackdown on pro-Palestine protestors in NYC appears to backfire, with new encampments springing up at Fordham University
Police arrest protesters during pro-Palestinian demonstrations at the City College Of New York in New York City, on 30 April 2024 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Students are accusing the New York Police Department (NYPD) of brutality and repression following the arrest of hundreds of students in a night of mayhem after administrators called in the police to shut down pro-Palestine encampments at two university campuses in the city.

Mayor Eric Adams said on Wednesday that more than 300 people were arrested Tuesday night local time after police raided pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University and the City College of New York - part of the City University of New York (Cuny) system.

Students and faculty told MEE that several students were also injured in the police raids at Columbia University, and later at Cuny in Manhattan.

By mid-morning on Wednesday local time, several students were still in jail waiting to be released.

At Columbia, where pro-Palestinian students have been in a stand-off with the administration over calls for the university to divest investments tied to Israel's occupation of Palestine, police officers wearing riot gear entered the main campus and broke up an encampment set up in solidarity with Gaza.

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In a dramatic scene that recalled the 1968 anti-Vietnam war protests at Columbia, police deployed an armoured vehicle with a bridging mechanism to gain entry to the Hamilton Hall building. Students had been occupying the building since Monday night and also renamed it "Hind's Hall" after the killing of six-year-old Hind Rajab, who was killed along with her family by Israeli forces in Gaza earlier this year.

CNN reported that the police also detonated flash grenades and fired pepper spray.

The escalation at Columbia came as the NYPD simultaneously entered a similar student encampment set up at Cuny in Manhattan on Tuesday night local time, with officers reportedly beating and spraying protesters including faculty and journalists with pepper spray.

Columbia University: Police in riot gear arrest dozens of students, clear pro-Palestine encampment
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Police entered the encampment shortly after 11pm, Laith Shalabi, a first-year Cuny law student arrested at the scene told Middle East Eye. 

First, the NYPD  arrested protestors outside the university, pushing them to the floor and making arrests. "It was rough," said Shalabi, who watched the scene from inside the encampment. 

As the police moved inside, Shalabi and others braced for the assault.  "We locked our arms, coordinated and said we weren't going to resist," he said. "I was in zip ties for three and a half hours...they were blood-stoppingly tight. I had to complain seven times before they finally cut them." 

The students were given tickets for trespassing and then placed in a holding cell. "It was filling up... they were counting how many new people walked in and some of the numbers reached 500," Shalabi said.

Igniting new Gaza solidarity encampments

Columbia's president, Nemat Minouche Shafik, called on police to remain on campus until 17 May, the end of the academic semester.

Nadia Abu El-Hajj, a professor at the university, said the decision by Shafik has effectively turned the school "into a police state".

"There was no serious faculty consultation. There was no interest in de-escalating the situation," Abu El-Hajj told MEE.

"Bringing in the riot police was a very dangerous overreaction designed to appease Congress and mega-donors. The decision was made with complete disregard for the fact that every single student on campus was being put at risk of actual and very real harm."

The police crackdown also elicited horror and outrage from US lawmakers and Jewish American groups, which say the decision to storm the student encampments is having a negative reputational effect on American academic institutions.

"We’re horrified by the violent attacks by police and pro-Israel counterprotestors at Columbia, CCNY, and UCLA overnight. From college presidents to Congress to the White House, our leaders must heed the call of protestors who want an end to the bloodshed, not call for their violent dispersal," IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish American organisation, said in a statement.

Jamaal Bowman, a US congressman from New York, said in response to the police crackdown that "in no world should our kids be met with guns when using their constitutional right to peacefully assemble".

Likewise, the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) described the raid as a stain on Columbia.

"It will forever be a stain on Columbia that the administration called riot police on its own student body rather than divest from the brutality of war and occupation," the group said.

Columbia University has been the epicentre of the most recent university protests against Israel's war on Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in six months.

The Gaza solidarity encampment started at the university on 17 April, when a few dozen students began setting up tents on the school's campus in Manhattan. The main goal of the encampments has been to demand the university end its complicity in the Israeli occupation and the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza by divesting from investments in companies linked to Israel.

Shafik, Columbia's president, said in a "campus update" on Wednesday that she felt compelled to call on the police to dismantle the encampment following the student takeover of "Hind's Hall".

Shafik said she hoped "we can use the weeks ahead to restore calm" at the school. But the violent police crackdown in response to the demonstrations appears to have only energised students across the US, where pro-Palestinian encampments have spread to at least 90 campuses.

On Wednesday, students at Fordham University in New York City announced that they had launched their own Gaza solidarity encampment "in direct response to the attack on Rafah and the police repression at the Columbia University and City University of New York (CUNY) campuses".

"The coalition condemns the actions of the Israeli Occupation Forces and New York’s Israeli-trained police and demands Fordham University disclose and divest from all companies (Northrop Grumman, Chevron, Google, etc) complicit in the Israeli occupation and ongoing siege," the Fordham students said in a statement sent to MEE.

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