What Columbia's pro-Palestinian student protesters are actually saying

What Columbia's pro-Palestinian student protesters are actually saying
Many of the students feel the need to speak out against a public narrative that has taken hold, often portraying them as dangerous, chaotic and "antisemitic".
5 min read
Washington, DC
30 April, 2024
Student protesters at Columbia want people to see their encampment for themselves. [Getty]

After midnight in the early hours of Tuesday morning, pro-Palestinian students at Columbia took over Hamilton Hall after the university's administration issued a new wave of suspensions over an encampment in protest of Israel's war on Gaza.

In a press release sent at around 2 am, the student protesters implored the administration not to send in the police or military. 

"To Columbia’s administrators and trustees: do not incite another Kent or Jackson State by bringing soldiers and police officers with weapons onto our campus. Students' blood will be on your hands," the press release from the group Columbia University Apartheid Divest reads.

It is a new escalation in a student movement that has spread to more than 60 universities nationwide, largely in response to the New York City university's initial crackdown. So far, there have been more than 900 arrests in crackdowns on pro-Palestinian demonstrations on US campuses.

At a recent a press briefing on Columbia University's quad, a student negotiator of the pro-Palestinian protests ended by telling the group of dozens of reporters that "this is our story". It was a poignant reminder of a story that has captured international headlines, casting a glaring spotlight on young protesters for many for the first time in their lives.

They say they want the public's focus to be on Gaza, where Israel's nearly seven-month war has killed around 35,000, mainly civilians, and has displaced the vast majority of the small enclave's population. At the same time, many of the students feel the need to speak out against a public narrative that has taken hold, often portraying them as dangerous, chaotic and antisemitic.

They are quick to emphasise that their movement is peaceful, diverse and focused on specific demands they see as reasonable. These demands are: divesting from arms for Israel, transparency of the university's financial ties, and amnesty for the students who were suspended following the police sweep earlier this month.

It was these arrests that brought Sebastien Gomez, a final year a physics student, into the encampment.

"I was working at my lab in the Mudd Building, which is on the other side of campus away from this, and they were harassing us there -- blocking the entrance, blocking us from leaving. It was totally unjust to subvert all of the avenues to discipline the university," Gomez told The New Arab, as he sat near the encampment on a cool spring evening, where the university had set up chairs in preparation for the 2024 graduation ceremony.

"I'm graduating, so I was hoping to finish my experiment, but this is way more important. My desk is in front of the window, and seeing correctional vans parked outside and seeing people harassed for no reason. Come on, BS," he said.

Live Story

Since joining the encampment, he says he has been inspired by students of different backgrounds and disciplines supporting one another, helping one another stay warm and fed while sleeping outdoors.

"The other night, I didn't have a tent to sleep in, and I was in a sleeping bag outside. It started to rain, and random people let me sleep in their tent with them. No questions asked, they know we're here for the same fight," he said.

Far from the chaos that has been depicted in much of the media coverage of the encampment, the students describe an atmosphere of studying, camaraderie and good food. Teachers are giving lectures at the encampment, students and alumni are bringing food, musicians have performed at the encampment, and students are working on their assignments.

"People are just continuing to learn and continuing to help each other. A few hours ago, everyone was out in the sun on their laptops doing work. You can't take the student out of the student," said Gomez.

Layla Obeid, in her second year at Barnard, Columbia's sister college, where she studies computer science and the Middle East, says she has been supporting Palestinians her entire life. As someone whose background is Jordanian and Syrian, she has always followed Palestine in the news.

Live Story

"It feels natural to be a part of this, but it's all the more beautiful to have it at your own college campus and do it with all of your peers that you've grown close to," she told TNA.

She knew after the 7 October attacks by Hamas on Israel that Israel's response would be severe. She expected the death toll to be high. When the first wave of suspensions and arrests took place at Columbia, the says the students' sense of urgency was heightened. She says they were met with strong support from faculty.

"Following the mass arrests, there's been a high level of support from the vast majority of students and faculty who see the university as a repressor of students' ability to organise," said Obeid. "Many students were affected [by the arrests and suspensions], literally rendering 18 and 19 year old students homeless."

Though there is currently strong media attention on Columbia's encampment, student protesters maintain that few decisionmakers are actually listening to the students. 

When the university's president, Nemat Minouche Shafik, ordered the mass arrests of students earlier this month, she did so while at a dinner in Washington, DC. When House Speaker Mike Johnson visited the university recently and was asked what he thought about Jewish students holding a seder for Passover, he said he didn't know who was in the encampment, said Jonathan Ben-Menachem, himself a Jewish student at Columbia protesting Israel's war in Gaza.

Live Story

"The biggest threat to Jewish safety on campus is the arrests that happened," he told reporters. "There are definitely fringe actors who are delighting in the Jewish community's division, especially outside the gates." 

Gomez, whose background is Colombian and Ecuadoran, says he has seen major support for Palestinians from the Hispanic community, possibly because of the genocide of indigenous people in Latin America. "Their fight is our fight," he said.

He hopes that critics of the encampment will visit it and see for themselves what it's like.

"It's a wonderful place," he said. "It's not right to hear what people outside are saying about it. They should come see it for themselves."