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Solidarity encampments take over college campuses

Students at Columbia University protest the current violence in Gaza, demanding an end to the conflict. The demonstrations drew significant attention to the ongoing crisis. Photo courtesy of John Towfighi.

Students staged a ‘Gaza solidarity encampment’ in support of Palestine where students began protesting on campus after Columbia University President Minouche Shafik held a hearing addressing anti-Semitism on campus April 17. According to BBC, the protests went on for over two weeks, and a day after the protests began, Shafik called the New York City Police Department in an attempt to stop the encampment. Furthermore, a week after students began their encampment, Shafik decided to switch to hybrid classes.

Grace Hamilton (’23), who currently attends Columbia, said when Shafik made the decision to transition from in-person to virtual classes, she felt it was similar to her experiences as a student during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For finals, a few days before they were meant to begin, [Shafik] sent out an email saying that everything was going to be virtual,” Hamilton said. “I woke up in the morning to that email, where everything was on Zoom, and that just felt like I was back in 2020, as a freshman in high school, attending everything via Zoom.”

Marcus Chae (’24), who will attend Columbia next year, said the news of the protest worried him.

“When it was like starting to come out into the headlines, I was always a bit like, ‘I hope it’s just going to kind of simmer out by the time I get there in September,’” Chae said. “As time went on, it got a bit more serious. People got arrested and stuff, and that’s when I started to think, ‘Oh, maybe it won’t.’”

Additionally, Chae said Columbia is known for their commitment to free speech and ensuring the voices of its student body are heard.

“Columbia’s community is a very outspoken one, and their students are very active,” Chae said. “Protest obviously comes naturally. I think that, at the end of the day, that’s part of democracy and that hasn’t wavered.”

According to Fox News, the NYPD arrested over 100 demonstrators, along with removing the encampment April 19. Additionally, after two weeks of protesting on campus, protesters decided to take it the next step and commenced their occupation of Hamilton Hall April 30, with a total of 300 people getting arrested on campus.

John Towfighi (’20), who recently graduated from Columbia, said he sees protesting as an effective means of communication for change in the U.S.

“Anybody who’s passionate about making change in the world or wanting to stick up for people whose voices aren’t heard, protests is the perfect way to do that,” Towfighi said. “If you look back in history, anytime we’ve seen meaningful social-political change in the U.S. or around the world, it’s always through protests.”

Nevertheless, Towfighi said there is a significant difference between free speech and hate speech.

“There’s a certain line that you can cross where free speech becomes harassment and that’s a very clear line where you’re inciting violence against somebody,” Towfighi said.

Chae said protesters in the encampment must be mindful of their speech.

“Free speech isn’t as simple as you’re allowed to say anything that you want to say,” Chae said. “Obviously, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech and hate speech can absolutely not, whatsoever, not be tolerated.”

Hamilton said protests are a significant part of Columbia’s tradition and serve as an integral component of amplifying student voice.

“Columbia has had a history of protest and activism,” Hamilton said. “That’s just a big part of the student body and that will always be a part of what Columbia is and how it identifies.”

Towfighi said Columbia responded similarly during a 1968 protest on campus which backfired immensely.

“In 1968, students at Columbia were protesting the Vietnam War and protesting racism in Harlem and Columbia, expanding into the neighborhood, and the university called in the police,” Towfighi said. “It was a horrible decision. It went horribly. So many students were hurt, so many people were upset. It tarnished the university’s reputation.”

Chae said Columbia’s administration has to make a tough decision because there is no way to make both sides happy.

“There’s no pleasing one side,” Chae said. “Whatever they try to do or kind of anger someone. Someone will say they’re not looking at the best interest of students, they’re not looking at the best interests of their benefactors, or stuff like that.”

Although the protests on campus led to a chaotic end of the year, Hamilton said that it unified all the students.

“Everyone at Columbia experienced that together,” Hamilton said. “I think that it will stay with Columbia for a very long time.”

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About the Contributors
Ayra Ansari, Reporter
Ayra Ansari ('27) is a Reporter for The Standard in Multimedia Journalism.
Seya Sawiris, Reporter
Seya Sawiris ('27) is a Reporter for The Standard in Multimedia Journalism.

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