Exclusive: Notes From Princeton Activists Show Coordination Between Campus Radicals and Outside Groups Aimed at Outfoxing University Administrators

Columbia University protesters are training and coordinating with their peers around the country, notes show

(Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
April 25, 2024

Organizers of the Columbia University encampment advised activists at Princeton on how to take over their own campus, giving them tips on disrupting university operations and stressing that there is "safety in numbers," according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The tips were dispensed last week during a meeting between Aditi Rao, a Ph.D. student at Princeton who has defended calls for intifada, and members of Columbia's encampment. Rao relayed the advice to her fellow Princeton activists in a strategy session last Saturday, notes from which were obtained by the Free Beacon.

The Columbia organizers had spent weeks hashing out a plan to kneecap the university's core functions and put administrators in an impossible position. If activists at Princeton wanted to pull off a similar coup, there were some things they should know.

Pick a site "that is public and that [the] University needs," Columbia's organizers advised, noting that they had targeted the quad where commencement takes place. "Don't pick the site of historic occupations," such as libraries or the president's office, since the university will simply move its operations to a "different building."

Finding the right target could take time, the organizers said. At Columbia, they were "planning for over a month."

The meeting notes, which have not been previously reported, are part of a tranche of documents that detail how a highly organized group of activists—including dozens of faculty—planned to paralyze Princeton by copying the Columbia playbook. Key to their strategy was the anticipated fecklessness of administrators, who at Columbia have refused to enforce their own deadlines to clear the encampment and, in past protests, would reinstate students within days of suspending them.

"Columbia thinks they will get suspensions cleared," notes from the meeting read.

As anti-Israel encampments consume campuses across the country—the latest was set up at George Washington University on Thursday—some activists have portrayed the chaos as a spontaneous response to a six-month-old war, triggered by organic horror at its mounting humanitarian toll. The materials from Princeton undercut that narrative, offering a rare look at the planning and coordination that have shaped these protests and made them so hard for universities to navigate.

Part of the playbook involves leveraging outside activists, including activist attorneys, to overwhelm campuses while shielding students from legal blowback. The group at Princeton "already has contacts with local Pro-Palestine orgs who are ready to mobilize," notes from a Sunday planning session state, and will "turn to local civil rights groups" if "students of color" get arrested.

Led largely by graduate students, the group also retained Palestine Legal, which represents students who "stand for justice in Palestine," for advice on protest tactics, according to audio from a Wednesday Zoom call obtained by the Free Beacon. Rao and Palestine Legal did not respond to requests for comment.

Columbia's encampment has been especially controversial because many protesters—including some who appear to be affiliated with the university—have hurled anti-Semitic insults at Jewish students and even called for their execution. Those optics seem to be top of mind for the Princeton organizers, who on Monday received media training from the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit that offers "digital resources about Palestine."

Led by the institute's communications manager, Amber Von Schassen, who declined to comment on the record, the training advised organizers to "be wary of academic jargon" and to "emphasize free speech" as an "American value," according to notes from the training first reported by National Review.

There are "lots of free speech ppl at Princeton," notes from the Saturday meeting read. Some professors "won't rally around Pro-Palestine but will organize around free speech and for student rights."

To that end, the group conducted outreach to faculty and assembled a spreadsheet of those supportive of the planned protest. Some—including Nancy Coffin, the director of Princeton's Arabic language program—even agreed to hold courses inside the encampment once it was set up, according to the spreadsheet, which indicates that over 20 professors expressed some level of support. Coffin did not respond to a request for comment.

The students seem to be banking on their faculty allies to bail them out in the event they are suspended. "Expulsion is highly unlikely," an onboarding document for potential protesters claims, because "we know that at least 2 faculty members" on the academic discipline committee "are in the Faculty for Justice in Palestine." The Free Beacon was unable to verify the identities of those faculty members.

Princeton's activists are also receiving help from the National Lawyers Guild, according to notes from a Tuesday meeting, and have "secured a criminal defense attorney to be on call" for any arrests.

That attorney, who is not named in the notes, "expects that everyone arrested will be released quickly," the meeting minutes say. Like New York State, New Jersey "has no cash bail."

All of the planning went up in flames Thursday morning when 50 students tried to set up an encampment outside Princeton's Firestone Library. Five minutes and two arrests later, the protest transitioned to a tentless sit-in as Princeton security arrived on the scene, according to National Review. The activists, who had initially planned to shut down a major campus thoroughfare, only managed to occupy a small corner of a large quad.

Though the sit-in swelled by the afternoon, the university has so far kept it on a tight leash, reportedly removing an attendee—former New York Times Middle East bureau chief Chris Hedges—for using a megaphone. The crackdown came after Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber warned that the university would not tolerate encampments, writing in an op-ed Thursday morning that they violate school policy and "can create health and safety risks."

The forceful response appears to have caught the organizers off guard: In meeting notes from Tuesday, they wrote that they were "not expecting [the] same push back as at NYU, Columbia."