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Inquiry for toxic spray at Columbia's pro-Palestine protest

Investigation launched after toxic spray used on Columbia University's pro-Palestinian demonstration
5 min read
Washington, D.C.
24 January, 2024
A pro-Palestinian student-led demonstration at Columbia University in New York was reportedly infiltrated by counter-protesters who sprayed a harmful substance.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protest at Columbia University. [Getty]

A pro-Palestinian student-led demonstration at Columbia University in New York was reportedly infiltrated by counter-protesters who sprayed a harmful substance on peaceful protesters, leading to at least eight hospitalisations and sparking an investigation by the New York Police Department.

The demonstration, in support of Palestinian civilians and a ceasefire in Gaza, was led by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace and took place on campus on Friday. While the protesters were congregated in close proximity with one another, around two dozen of them reported being sprayed by others in the crowd who were wearing scarves resembling keffiyehs, the Columbia Spectator reported.

As the students' physical reactions to the spray developed, which included burning eyes, skin rash, nausea and coughing, speculation began to grow about the nature of the substance. Symptoms from the spray used at Friday's demonstration were consistent with Skunk, a spray developed in Israel to disperse crowds and distributed in the US. Though its stated purpose is to manage crowds, it can cause serious physical harm. 

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Jewish Voice for Peace told The New Arab that they were aware of eight demonstrators who had been hospitalised from the spray. As of Tuesday, some students said they continued to experience symptoms from their alleged exposure to the toxic spray from Friday's demonstration.

"This is exposure to a hazardous chemical. Other students were feeling headaches and migraines," Layla, a graduate student in social work, who asked to use only her first name for her safety, told TNA.

Though she has always been concerned about safety at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, she wasn't expecting exposure to toxic chemicals. It was the first week back on campus after the winter break. Layla hadn't yet bought all of her textbooks for the semester. As she and others gathered for Friday's demonstration, she says she noticed something "off" about at least two people in the crowd. 

She recalls their keffiyehs being a slightly different design than the ones usually worn by Palestinians and their supporters. She said when she started taking pictures of them, they became aggressive, particularly toward Jewish protesters, some of whom were holding signs indicating they were Jewish students supporting a ceasefire. She says they then called her a terrorist.

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It was around the time of these exchanges that she believed the spray was released. At first, she says she wasn't aware of anything unusual happening because of wind and snowfall. She says it wasn't until later in the day that she and several fellow demonstrators felt the effects of the substance, which she says no amount of washing could remove.

As of Tuesday, she went to urgent care and reports still feeling the effects of the spray, leading her to discard her winter coat and take at least 12 showers in four days. Of more concern to her in the long run is how the spray could affect her auto-immune disease, with the incident already exacerbating the pain of her pre-existing condition, she says.

"We're just expected to go back to normal. This does not feel normal," said Layla, who has lost family members to the ongoing war in Gaza.

Though she's adamant that Friday's incident won't keep her from protesting against the war, it has nonetheless created a chilling effect for returning to campus, which for students like her is compounded by a lack of university administration support.

When asked by TNA about Friday's incident, a spokesperson for Columbia said, "Friday's event was unsanctioned and violated university policies and procedures, which are in place to ensure there is adequate personnel on the ground to keep our community safe."

This is in an apparent reference to the university's banning of the two pro-Palestinian student groups in November that were leading Friday's demonstration. The bans, the groups said at the time, which followed complaints of the groups' chants and causing discomfort on campus, would not deter them from demonstrating.

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This was followed by another email pointing to a statement by the university's interim provost, Dennis Mitchell, emphasising the administration's "commitment to engaging in free expression in a safe and respectful manner." He also noted that the NYPD was taking the lead in investigating "what appear to have been serious crimes, possibly hate crimes."

The letter acknowledged that multiple students required medical treatment for exposure to a foul-smelling spray. It also stated that following information they had received Sunday, they identified the alleged perpetrators, who were immediately banned from campus.

The identification of the alleged perpetrators was swift, with online sleuths finding them to be former Israeli soldiers who were now Columbia University students. However, their names have not been released by the university or the NYPD.

A deputy commissioner for public information with the NYPD told TNA that six individuals, all females in their teens and twenties, filed police reports. So far, there have been no arrests, however he said they are continuing to actively work on the case, which will end in arrest.

Since the outbreak of the war, which has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians and around 1,200 Israelis, there have been heightened tensions on university campuses, as pro-Palestinian students have faced scrutiny for their chants and for causing disruptions. 

Students from both sides of the conflict have reported intimidation for their positions, however those supporting Palestinians have seen far less support for their expression from university administrators, which they say has left them feeling vulnerable.

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However, the incident at Friday's demonstration appears to have brought hostility to campus speech and expression to a new level. It is unclear if Columbia's administration will provide full protection to demonstrators, given their previous decision to ban two of the leading pro-Palestinian student groups.

For Layla, however, she emphasises that she doesn't want the spotlight to be too focused on her own experience, as difficult as it has been. She wants the public's focus to be on Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

"As scary as this is, it's the everyday reality for Palestinians," she said. "That's who we've really been speaking up for."