Police Sweep Columbia's Campus, Arrest Students Who Seized University Building

'IT IS TIME TO ESCALATE,' student group wrote as cops approached campus

Police enter Hamilton Hall. (Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images)
April 30, 2024

MANHATTAN—New York City police officers entered Columbia University on Tuesday night to arrest students who seized a school building, a move that came after president Minouche Shafik declined for days to bring police to campus as unsanctioned protesters refused to leave their "Gaza Solidarity" encampment.

Police established a perimeter near Columbia's campus around 7:30 p.m. as a group of officers in riot gear moved toward the entrance. They carried batons and zip ties. Protesters outside the gates chanted, "NYPD! KKK!" The school issued a "shelter in place" alert.

On campus, keffiyeh-clad students responded by forming a human chain around Hamilton Hall, which was occupied by dozens of students. Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, one of the groups behind the encampment, posted a photo of police vans approaching campus under the caption, "NYPD is the real occupying force. ALL OUT TO COLUMBIA! DEFEND THE ENCAMPMENTS! FROM THE WALLS TO THE GATES, IT IS TIME TO ESCALATE."

Police entered campus just past 9 p.m. Some officers searched the encampment while others entered Hamilton Hall through the second-floor windows. They entered the hall around 9:30 p.m. and began escorting students off campus using zip ties. Many were sent off in buses.

109 were arrested, around 50 of whom were inside Hamilton Hall, according to police. Those who occupied Hamilton Hall could face burglary, criminal mischief, and trespassing charges, according to New York City police commissioner Edward Caban. Members of the unauthorized "Gaza Solidarity" encampment on the campus lawn could face trespassing and disorderly conduct charges, he said.

Police stuck around campus overnight to clear the encampment and remove banners from Hamilton Hall, some of which read, "Liberation Education" and "Student Intifada." They removed all students from the encampment and from Hamilton Hall. Police will maintain a campus presence through May 17 to stifle new encampments and building takeovers.

"The only thing that is left is the tents and their property," NYPD assistant commissioner Carlos Nieves said late Tuesday. "There's no one left in the building."

"The doors were barricaded with conference tables, chairs, or soda machines. The windows were actually taped up with newspapers so we couldn't see."

Columbia president Minouche Shafik for days declined to bring police to campus after doing so on April 18, one day after both her testimony to Congress on campus anti-Semitism and the "Gaza Solidarity" encampment's formation. Students quickly reconstructed the encampment.

Shafik then set four different deadlines for students to clear the encampment, the last of which came after she spent days negotiating with protesters—only to come to no agreement and ask them to "voluntarily disperse."

All of the deadlines were ignored.

Then, on Monday, the school began suspending students who refused to leave the encampment. Protesters responded by storming Hamilton Hall overnight, using a hammer to smash glass doors and tables and chairs to barricade the entrance. They also pushed and grabbed those who tried to block the takeover or film the chaos.

Some faculty members who flocked to the encampment to support students watched on.

Students on campus during the takeover called police, but law enforcement never arrived, as Shafik did not want to make arrests, an NYPD spokesperson said. Columbia later said Hamilton Hall occupants "face expulsion." Still, students remained inside until police entered campus Tuesday night.

A Columbia spokesman issued a statement around 9:30 p.m., saying the school's "leadership team" met "throughout the night and into the early morning … to determine the best plan to protect our students and the entire Columbia community."

"We made the decision, early in the morning, that this was a law enforcement matter, and that the NYPD were best positioned to determine and execute an appropriate response," the spokesman said. "The decision to reach out to the NYPD was in response to the actions of the protesters, not the cause they are championing."

Classes at Columbia ended Monday, and final examinations begin Friday. Commencement is roughly two weeks away and will take place on May 15. University officials will continue to provide updates "on access to campus buildings" through "the next few days," according to the spokesman.

Update 11:00 a.m.: This piece has been updated with additional information.