Gianluca Costantini
Political Comics

2024 Columbia University pro-Palestinian campus occupation

This page is available in English (UK) , Italian

The 2024 Columbia University pro-Palestinian campus occupation is an ongoing protest involving pro-Palestinian students at Columbia University in New York City.

The following text is taken from the Wikipedia page: “2024 Columbia University protests“. A page that has been updated in real-time and that I believe is the most reliable and impartial. All the drawings you will see were drawn from the 17th to the 1st of May 2024 and are available for free download here.

At the end of the text, you will find my analysis and the reasons for this work that I published on Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)

ps. I, of course, stand with the students.

The protests began on April 17, 2024, when pro-Palestinian students established an encampment of approximately 50 tents, calling it the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, on the university’s campus, demanding the university divest from Israel. The encampment was initially forcibly dismantled the next day when university president Nemat Shafik authorized the New York City Police Department to storm campus and conduct mass arrests. A new encampment was built the next day. When negotiations on divestment failed, protestors broke into and occupied Hamilton Hall, leading to a massive police and administration intervention. The arrests marked the first time Columbia allowed police to suppress campus protests since the 1968 demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

The campus occupation has been organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), a student-led coalition of over 120 groups, together with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which have often participated in New York City’s pro-Palestinian demonstrations since the October 2023 start of the Israel–Hamas war. Another local group, Within Our Lifetime (WOL), has been protesting outside the campus perimeter in support of the encampment, clashing with the NYPD. Much smaller groups of pro-Israel counterprotesters have also been present outside the university. As a result of the protests, Columbia University switched to blended learning (incorporating more online learning) for the rest of the semester. The protests encouraged other actions at multiple universities. There have been multiple incidents of antisemitism during the protests, but organizers have said they were from outside agitators and non-students. Jewish protestors have also said that the protests weren’t antisemitic.

The encampment

At the entrance to the encampment on Columbia‘s east lawn is posted “Gaza Solidarity Encampment Community Guidelines”. Some of these guidelines are to not take pictures of people without their permission, not to use drugs or alcohol in the encampment, and not to engage with counter-protesters. Speaking to the press is allowed only between 2 and 4 pm. Other signs on the perimeter say “Demilitarize education” and “Globalize the Intifada“. Students created their own chants and passed out flyers that read “Do you feel safe sending your child to a school which gives up its students to the police?”There is a buffet-style meal service with abundant food.

April 17-21

On April 17, beginning around 4 am, about 70 protesters sat in tents bearing the Palestinian flag on the East Butler Lawn. Protesters put up banners reading “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” and “Liberated Zone“. A substantial NYPD presence was noted outside the university as soon as the encampment was established. Activity in the encampment included a teach-in and film screening. That morning, at about 10 am, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, an event that had been planned weeks before.She had previously been invited to attend the November 2023 United States Congress hearing on antisemitism but had declined, citing a scheduling conflict.

The next day, the Shafik-authorized New York City Police Department Strategic Response Group entered the encampment to arrest protesters as Columbia University employees cleared the tents. Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) said the university had dumped students’ confiscated belongings in a nearby alley. Three students were suspended, including Isra Hirsi, the daughter of U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar. After the NYPD appeared, a group of pro-Israel counter-protesters congregated to celebrate the university’s response, waving American and Israeli flags. A protest on 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue formed, but dispersed to allow buses with detained protesters to exit.

Despite the dismantlement of the encampment, protesters soon moved to an adjacent lawn on campus, the West Lawn of the Butler Lawns, where they hoisted their banners and pitched several tents. Public intellectual and independent presidential candidate Cornel West appeared to show solidarity. A group protested outside the university’s main entrance on 116th Street. Protesters on 116th Street and Broadway moved toward 120th Street after a man was taken into custody. All of the protesters the NYPD arrested were released by late evening.

On April 19, protesters remained camped out on campus; SJP chapters at the University of North CarolinaBoston University, and Ohio State University, as well as the Harvard College Palestine Solidarity Committee at Harvard University, announced rallies in solidarity with the Columbia protesters. Norman Finkelstein, an anti-Zionist political scientist and activist, appeared and gave a speech to protesters. A Muslim jummah prayer service and a Jewish Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service were held at the encampment in the afternoon and evening, respectively.

On April 18, the university informed the student protesters who had been arrested that they were indefinitely suspended. During the weekend of April 20-21, public safety officers from the administration told WKCR-FM, which had been broadcasting information about the protest, to vacate its office due to an unspecified danger. Staff refused, saying they had a responsibility to broadcast information 24/7. WKCR later said it was a misunderstanding. Protesters also targeted some Jewish students with “antisemitic vitriol”, leaving some Jewish students “fearful for their safety on the campus and its vicinity”.

On April 21, Elie Buechler, a rabbi associated with Columbia University’s Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, recommended that Jewish students “return home as soon as possible and remain home”, arguing that the ongoing campus occupation had “made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety”. Footage of protests over the weekend showed some protesters using antisemitic language against Jewish students, and many Jewish students said they felt unsafe.

April 22-28

Hundreds of Columbia faculty members walked out of classes to protest the university’s response to the protest. Because of the protest, the university canceled classes on April 22, and then said it would switch to blended learning for the remainder of the semester. The Columbia Elections Board announced that a referendum on divestment from Israel, originally proposed by CUAD on March 3, 2024, had passed by a large margin, showing that Columbia’s student body mostly supported the initiative. In the evening, the students celebrated a Seder on the first evening of Passover. Signs at the second encampment, including one stating: “Welcome to the People’s University for Palestine”

On April 23, A student organizer said that protesters were in negotiations with the university through a legal negotiator but declined to share details. Ben Chang, Columbia’s spokesperson, said that organizers had met with university officials in the early morning to discuss the situation. Shafik issued a midnight deadline for protesters to either agree to vacate campus or face the university’s consideration of “alternative options for clearing the West Lawn and restoring calm to campus”. Jewish pro-Palestinian students held Passover Seder within the encampment.

Shortly after midnight on April 24, SJP reported that protesters had suspended negotiations because the university had threatened to call in the New York Army National Guard to clear them out, saying they would not return to the negotiating table until Columbia rescinded its threat. But the university said that “important progress” had been made in negotiations and that Shafik’s original deadline would be extended by 48 hours, that the students had agreed to reduce the number of tents, and that they would ensure that protesters not affiliated with Columbia would leave campus. Protesters were seen taking down and moving some tents. Meanwhile, the NYPD dispersed about 100 protesters outside campus.

In the afternoon of April 24, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Mike Johnson gave a speech in front of Low Library condemning the protesters and calling for Shafik to resign. Some in attendance loudly booed him. During his speech, Johnson said that during the October 7 attack, “infants were cooked in ovens”, an unsubstantiated claim. Later, he called on President Joe Biden to deploy the National Guard to quell the protests; White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre replied that such deployment is up to the state governor, not the president.

Palestine Legal filed a Title VI suit with regard to suspended students on April 25. The Columbia Board of Trustees issued statements in affirmation of Shafik. The Columbia student senate held an emergency meeting with Shafik to consider censuring her.

On April 26, a United for Israel counter-march, organized by StandWithUs and some right-wing organizations, was held around Columbia and stopped at the gates. Some marchers harassed pro-Palestinian counter-protesters and targeted some counter-protesters inside the gates. U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman visited the encampment. Columbia library workers issued a statement condemning Shafik for deploying police and private security against the protesters. More than 1,000 pro-Israel protesters organized by the “New York Hostage and Missing Families Forum” rallied at 116th and Broadway. The University Senate announced plans to call for a censure vote against Shafik but decided instead to vote on a resolution expressing displeasure with her out of fear of ousting the president in a time of crisis.

A Columbia student who had emerged as a leader of the protest movement was barred after a video from January surfaced in which they said, “Zionists don’t deserve to live”. Other protest groups condemned the comment. The New York Times said the student’s comments raised the question, “How much of the movement in support of the Palestinian people in Gaza is tainted by antisemitism?” On April 27, the student suspended for their “Zionists don’t deserve to live” comment apologized. The NYPD said that outside agitators were trying to hijack the protests, and that they were ready to raid the campus if needed. The next day, the administration called for the protesters to leave, and said that bringing back the NYPD would be counterproductive.

April 29

Negotiations between protesters and the university came to a “dead end” on April 29. The administration threatened to suspend students still in the encampment by 2 pm. It also offered a partial amnesty deal. CUAD voted to stay in the encampment after the deadline, and SJP told members not to sign any administration deals. Faculty linked arms around the encampment before the deadline. Despite the threats, students stayed in the encampment and surrounding areas. Suspensions began later that day.

A Jewish student sued the university for failing to provide a safe environment. Police set up barricades outside the university. Alumni wrote Shafik a letter asking her to clear the encampment.

Occupation of Hamilton Hall

In the early morning of April 30, protesters occupied Hamilton Hall, breaking windows, and barricaded themselves inside. Protesters unfurled a banner purporting to rename the building “Hind’s Hall” in honor of Hind Rajab, a young Palestinian girl killed by Israeli forces. As a result, the campus was locked down and a higher police presence was noted near the campus; the NYPD and the university said they would not send police in. The administration threatened to expel students who participated in the hall takeover.

Late on April 30, a heavy riot police presence was seen outside the campus. The administration told students to shelter in place due to “heightened activity“. The NYPD prepared to raid the campus after a letter from Shafik gave it permission. Protesters appeared undeterred, continuing chants.

At around 9 pm, the NYPD entered campus with administration approval. The administration blamed protesters for escalating by taking Hamilton Hall. According to Shafik’s letter to the NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters requesting police intervention, someone hid in the building until it closed, then let others in. Columbia believed that while students were among those who entered, their leaders were unaffiliated with the university. Using flash-bang grenades to breach the building, more than 100 protestors were arrested. By the end of the night, both Hamilton Hall and the entire campus were cleared, including the encampment.

In the letter to the deputy commissioner, Shafik requested an NYPD presence through at least May 17, two days after the scheduled commencement.

Other protests

Demonstrations spread on April 22, when students at several universities on the East Coast—including New York University, Yale University, Emerson College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Tufts University—began occupying campuses, as well as experiencing mass arrests in New York and at Yale. Protests emerged throughout the U.S. in the following days, with protest camps established on over 40 campuses. On April 25, mass arrests occurred at Emerson College, the University of Southern California, and the University of Texas, as protests spread to Europe, Australia and Canada.

A continued crackdown on April 27 led to approximately 275 arrests at Washington, Northeastern, Arizona State, and Indiana University. Several professors were among those detained at Emory University, and at Washington University in St. Louis, university employees were arrested. On April 28, counter-protests were held at MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). On April 30, approximately 300 protesters were arrested at Columbia University and City College of New York. The following day, violent clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protesters occurred at the UCLA campus occupation.

The occupations have resulted in the closure of Columbia University and the Cal Poly Humboldt for the remainder of the semester; votes of no confidence initiated by faculty members in California, Georgia, and Texas; and Portland State University pausing its financial ties with Boeing over its ties to Israel. Over 200 groups have expressed support for the protests, as well as Jewish U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, and multiple progressive congresspeople. Explore further

Personal Insight
Published on Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)

The first protests I drew not just as an artist but as an activist were during the Arab Spring in 2011, when I began documenting Egyptians demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and sharing my drawings on Twitter. I was surprised to see that my drawings and cartoons were shared widely and used by Egyptians protesting in the streets. It was a profound experience, to realize that my art could become part of the protests. I drew more and got more involved documenting other protests, like the Occupy Gezi movement in Istanbul and the more recent demonstrations in Hong Kong.

My utopian goal was to be present in the square with the people, despite living in a small Italian provincial town. This is a completely personal initiative, an artistic action that is entirely independent.

The first time I met Ai Weiwei in person (we later collaborated on his graphic memoir), he asked me who I worked for. Initially taken aback, I replied that I am “an independent artist” and that I take orders from no one. Only later did I understand the importance of that question.

I draw to uphold freedom of expression—my own and those of people around the world—and to open the world’s eyes to violations of human rights, from countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey, Belarus, Eritrea and Egypt.

I mainly focus on individual cases now, of people arrested for their political ideas or sentenced to death. But protests and popular movements always remain in my heart.

Since Hamas’s attack into Israel on Oct. 7, everything has changed. As the dignity and humanity of the Palestinian people have been nullified, and their rights denied, students in many cities around the world have rebelled, demanding justice for Palestinians and an end to Israel’s brutal war of retaliation in Gaza. Even the students at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, where I teach, have asked to end its academic exchange with Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College, an institution that supports the war in the Gaza Strip. However, the academy’s Academic Council has refused to end the partnership. I have supported the students’ request by not only drawing their protests but demonstrating alongside them.

For the past week, I have been drawing the ongoing protests against Israel’s war in Gaza by students at Columbia University, who set up a Gaza Solidarity Encampment demanding that the university divest from Israel. When Columbia’s president ordered the police to arrest more than 100 student protesters on campus, it was the first time since 1968, during the Vietnam War, that police were invited onto Columbia’s campus. I have portrayed personalities such as Susan Sarandon and Cornel West, who have taken a stand in support of the students. As one of the arrested students, Isra Hirsi, said of the university administration: “What else did they expect us to do? Stay silent”?

My drawings are now freely circulating online and among the students protesting, making my artistic work complete.

United States / Palestine / Israel

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