New York demonstrations spread after mass arrests

NEW YORK — After police arrested of over 300 pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia University and the City College of New York, students and faculty from schools across the city took their cause to the streets on Wednesday.

Hundreds gathered at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan to voice opposition to Israel’s military operation in Gaza, as NYPD buses were parked nearby.

Students, faculty and staffers from Columbia, the City University of New York and the New School — among others — waited outside for protesters who were arrested. “From the river to the sea, Palestine is almost free!” they chanted.

They gathered near the New York Police Department headquarters with supplies for demonstrators being released.

The scenes unfolding across New York City sent an unequivocal message: From publicly run colleges to elite universities, demonstrations in support of Palestinians would not be subdued by mass arrests.

“Our work is not over. We take to the streets,” Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the group behind the school’s now-shuttered encampment that once housed over 100 tents, said on Instagram in directing followers to a protest in Lower Manhattan.

Campus tensions around pro-Palestinian encampments peaked Tuesday when Columbia President Minouche Shafik authorized hundreds of NYPD officers to swarm the school and remove dozens of demonstrators who had occupied an academic building since early that morning. As students marched and rain poured down, cops in riot gear arrested 119 demonstrators in a dramatic, televised episode.

“This drastic escalation of many months of protest activity pushed the University to the brink,” Shafik wrote in a universitywide email Wednesday, later adding, “I am sorry we reached this point.”

Less than two hours later, a throng of officers descended upon City College of New York at the request of school leaders to clear out an encampment in the school’s quad. Early Tuesday evening — after demonstrators marched from Columbia to City College — the overarching City University of New York's public safety division also arrested 25 people.

The New York Civil Liberties Union blasted school presidents for authorizing the arrests and charged the NYPD with injuring students, arresting bystanders and impeding the media.

“NYCLU is deeply worried about further escalation by city and campus officials. We need creative, non-police thinking that furthers dialogue and engagement,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a Wednesday statement. “Police may only know the one-way rachet of force, but school officials should know better.”

No encampment had been erected at NYPD headquarters, where the protesters were being released, but tables were set up in an area enclosed by barricades that included food, drinks, toiletries and earplugs. At one point, a student alerted others that there was hot Palestinian food available.

Johanna Von Maack, a student at Hunter College who participated in the encampment at City College — which students said was open to all CUNY students — said students had been gathered there since Tuesday’s first arrests.

“There are people from NYU, FIT, all these other schools, some that didn’t even start encampments and they are here as well,” Von Maack said, referring to New York University and the Fashion Institute of Technology. “Just because we all believe in solidarity and supporting each other, ‘cause we all have the same fight, we’re just on different battlegrounds.”

She said CUNY initially gave them a deadline of Wednesday morning to dismantle the encampment but ended up coming “way earlier.”

Protesters from Within Our Lifetime, a pro-Palestinian organization, led a march to schools with encampments Tuesday night. By the time they arrived at City College, the school had closed all the gates and would not let anyone in — and that’s when things went awry, she said.

“They were pepper spraying students, they were injuring them,” Von Maack said. “Why was it so brutal and so violent? These are working class students of color, a lot of them are commuter students and they are putting so much on the line just to demand that CUNY divest away from a genocide.”

City College announced Tuesday that classes would transition to remote learning on Wednesday. Columbia announced all remaining final exams and other academic meetings should go fully remote and urged faculty to “provide accommodations” for finals, including “adjusting the grading policy such that the final exam does not negatively impact the final grade.”

In a statement past 1 a.m. Wednesday, a CUNY spokesperson pointed to a series of violent incidents over the past six days at City College, including a fire Sunday night at the Marshak Science Building caused by use of a flare gun.

The spokesperson also pointed to an attempted break-in at Shepard Hall and a break-in at the Administration Building that included the vandalizing of offices and smashing glass doors.

“Tuesday night’s actions were taken in response to specific and repeated acts of violence and vandalism, not in response to peaceful protest,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “CUNY will continue working to keep our community free from violence, intimidation and harassment.”

Earlier Wednesday, Mayor Eric Adams attributed the campus unrest to “outside agitators,” but demonstrators at Fordham pushed back on that criticism.

“It's like a McCarthyite gimmick, ‘outside agitators,’” said Manolo De Los Santos, executive director of The People’s Forum, a leftist organization. “The students organized this themselves. They called the community to respond. And we’ve responded.”