Heavy police presence at Columbia as more unrest rocks US campuses

Heavy police presence at Columbia as more unrest rocks US campuses
Heavy police presence at Columbia as more unrest rocks US campuses

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - NYPD officers arrive near Columbia University where pro-Palestinian students are barricaded inside a building and have set up an encampment. — AFP pic

NEW YORK, May 1 — A heavy police presence was seen at Columbia University yesterday, raising fears of a clash with student protesters as administrators struggle to contain pro-Palestinian demonstrations on dozens of campuses around the United States.

The demonstrations — the most sweeping and prolonged unrest to rock US college campuses since the Vietnam war protests of the 1960s and 70s — have led to several hundred arrests of students and other activists.

Many of them have vowed to maintain their actions despite suspensions and threats of expulsion.

On Tuesday evening the campus in the heart of New York City, usually accessible to passersby, was sealed off, with police erecting barricades, an AFP journalist saw.

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Earlier, students had vowed to fight any eviction from Hamilton Hall, in which demonstrators had barricaded themselves before dawn.

“We will remain here, drawing from the lessons of our people (in Gaza) that stay put, and hold their ground even under the worst conditions,” a protester wearing a Palestinian keffiyeh headscarf, who declined to give her name, told reporters outside the hall.

As she spoke, protesters were seen using ropes to hoist crates of supplies up to the building’s second floor, apparently signalling the students were hunkering down.

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President Joe Biden’s White House sharply criticised the seizure of Hamilton Hall, with a spokesman saying it was “absolutely the wrong approach” as police patrolled street entrances to the prestigious New York university.

“That is not an example of peaceful protest,” the spokesman added.

Protests against Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, with its high Palestinian civilian death toll, have posed a challenge to university administrators trying to balance free speech rights with complaints that the rallies have veered into anti-Semitism and hate.

The unrest has swept through US higher education institutions like wildfire, with many student protesters erecting tent encampments on campuses from coast to coast.

At Columbia, demonstrators vowed to remain until their demands are met, including that the school divest all financial holdings linked to Israel.

The university has rejected the demand, with president Minouche Shafik saying talks with students had collapsed.

“Students occupying the building face expulsion,” Columbia’s office of public affairs said in a statement, adding that the protesters were provided “the opportunity to leave peacefully” but instead declined and escalated the situation.

The university outlined in a press update Tuesday that those in the encampments and Hamilton Hall “number in the dozens,” while nearly 37,000 attend Columbia.

A nationwide movement

In one of the newest clashes, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, police moved in Tuesday to clear one encampment, detaining some protesters in a tense showdown.

Meanwhile at northern California’s Cal Poly Humboldt, a week-long occupation was brought to a dramatic end early Tuesday when police moved in to arrest nearly three dozen protesters who had seized buildings and forced the closure of the campus.

In Oregon, Portland State University’s campus was closed Tuesday “due to an ongoing incident” in the library, college authorities said, after local media reported around 50 protesters had broken into the building a day earlier.

And Brown University reached an agreement in which student protesters will remove their encampment in exchange for the institution holding a vote on divesting from Israel — a major concession from an elite American university during the protests.

Footage of police in riot gear summoned at various colleges has been viewed around the world.

UN human rights chief Volker Turk voiced concern at the heavy-handed steps taken to disperse the campus protests, saying “freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental to society.”

He added that “incitement to violence or hatred on grounds of identity or viewpoints — whether real or assumed — must be strongly repudiated.”

Shafik said many Jewish students had fled Columbia’s campus in fear. “Anti-Semitic language and actions are unacceptable,” she said.

Protest organisers deny accusations of anti-Semitism, arguing their actions are aimed at Israel’s government.

The Columbia student group insisted their protest was peaceful and warned authorities against a crackdown similar to those that marred the anti-Vietnam War movement.

The Gaza war started when Hamas staged an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7 that left around 1,170 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,535 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry. — AFP

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