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Columbia to continue talks with student protesters after deadline to clear out passes

Tensions are growing on U.S. college campuses, as the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have rocked New York-area schools in recent days — and the ensuing arrests of participants — spread from coast to coast.

Students have launched protests and encampments at more than a dozen schools across the country, from Massachusetts to Michigan to California. They are calling for an end both to the Israel-Hamas war and their universities' investment in companies that profit from it or, more broadly, do business with Israel.

It's the latest wave of protests to sweep college campuses since the Oct. 7 attack Hamas-led attack on Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and roughly 240 others taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities, who say more than 130 remain captive in Gaza. Israel's ensuing military response in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, some two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

College-age Americans are more likely to sympathize with Palestinians than Israelis, according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center.

And the Israel-Hamas war has become a major flashpoint at institutions of higher education, many of which are now grappling with how to balance free speech protections with student safety at a moment of rising antisemitismand Islamophobia.

When asked about the protests on Monday — the first night of the Jewish holiday of Passover — President Biden said he condemned "the antisemitic protests" as well as "those who don't understand what's going on with the Palestinians."

Here's where things stand with the demonstrations:

Law enforcement break up protests from New York to California

NYPD officers face pro-Palestinian protesters on Monday night after clearing an encampment on NYU's campus.
Alex Kent / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
NYPD officers face pro-Palestinian protesters on Monday night after clearing an encampment on NYU's campus.

On Monday morning, police arrested nearly 50 protesters at Yale University while Columbia University, which has seen rising tensions since over 100 demonstrators were arrested last week, shifted classes online — a move it has since extended through the end of the semester. (Classes end on April 29 and finals end on May 10, according to the school's academic calendar.)

Later Monday night, New York police cleared an encampment of pro-Palestinian protesters outside New York University's Gould Plaza, taking an unspecified number of them into custody after they refused to leave.

An NYU faculty group tweetedthat the school had authorized police to "arrest its own students, faculty, staff and anyone who dares to stand in solidarity with Palestine."

NYU spokesperson John Beckman said in a statement that after some 50 demonstrators assembled that morning, the university closed the plaza to prevent additional people from joining.

He said more protesters — "many of whom we believe were not affiliated with NYU" — breached the barriers in the afternoon, changing the dynamic with their "disorderly, disruptive, and antagonizing behavior," and noted reports of "intimidating chants and several antisemitic incidents."

"Given the foregoing and the safety issues raised by the breach, we asked for assistance from the NYPD," he added. "The police urged those on the plaza to leave peacefully, but ultimately made a number of arrests."

Meanwhile, across the country at California State Polytechnic University, a group of students waving Palestinian flags and signs occupied Siemens Hall, an academic and administrative building on the Humboldt campus.

They barricaded the front entrance with chairs, desks, trash cans and other pieces of furniture, according to reports from ABC affiliate KRCR and an image posted to social media by the organization National Students for Justice in Palestine.

Around 8:30 p.m. local time, school officials urged people to stay away from the building, calling it "a dangerous and volatile situation." They said they were concerned about the safety of the protesters barricaded inside and called on them to heed law enforcement's directive to leave peacefully.

Several hours later, they said campus will remain closed through Wednesday for the safety of the community.

"Buildings are locked down and key cards will not work," they said, adding that "In-person classes and activities are transitioning to remote where possible."

Solidarity encampments emerge at over a dozen schools

Pro-Palestinian students protest at a tent encampment in front of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on Monday.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Pro-Palestinian students protest at a tent encampment in front of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on Monday.

Pro-Palestinian students at colleges in multiple states are now launching movements of their own, many as a direct response to the recent events at Columbia.

Students at Northwestern University, Ohio State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Temple University, Princeton University, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and others held walkouts and rallies in support of Columbia students last week after their arrest.

And others have followed suit this week.

A Pro-Palestinian student group at the University of Minnesota tweeted that they were joining with Columbia students by setting up an encampment on their own campus lawn at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, in solidarity "with the people of Palestine and with students standing up for Palestine across the country."

Students at the University of Pittsburgh also set up tents on Tuesday morning outside its central Cathedral of Learning, which they said in a news release was done in solidarity with students at a list of other schools.

Some 300 students staged a "solidarity walkout" at Stanford University on Monday to show support for Palestinians in Gaza and their pro-Palestinian peers at other colleges, according to the Stanford Daily.

Students have also put up encampments at several Boston-area schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Emerson College and Tufts University. Harvard University has closed Harvard Yard to the public through Friday, in apparent anticipation of potential protests.

At the University of Michigan, student groups erected some two dozen tents in the middle of campus on Monday. Michigan Public reportsthat some 100 people gathered for a rally that afternoon, chanting "Disclose! Divest! We will not stop, we will not rest!" as police looked on.

Students at the University of California, Berkeley also set up a "Gaza Solidarity Encampment" on Monday. Organizers told ABC7 that they want school leaders to end what they're calling their "silence" over the situation in Gaza and to provide better protection for Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students.

Questions loom about protections for students and speech

Protestors occupy an encampment on the grounds of Columbia University in New York City on Monday.
David Dee Delgado / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Protestors occupy an encampment on the grounds of Columbia University in New York City on Monday.

The recent turmoil has raised even more questions about the responsibility of universities when it comes to balancing student safety with freedom of expression.

Some pro-Palestinian activists have publicly said they are protesting Israel, not Jews, and noted that their ranks include many Jewish students. At Columbia and Yale, some came together for Passover seders mid-protest.

Debbie Becher, a sociology professor at Barnard College (which is part of Columbia), told Morning Edition Tuesday that campus feels relatively safe and peaceful, unlike the portrayals of it on social media. She described the pro-Palestinian encampment as a "place of sharing and community building."

"Students have watched movies there, they hold teach-ins, they study, they eat together," she said.

But the demonstrations have left other Jewish students feeling unsafe, particularly due to reports of antisemitic rhetoric and harassment on several campuses.

The Anti-Defamation Leaguehas tracked several instances of protesters expressing support for Hamas and the Oct. 7 attack. A protester at Columbia, for example, held up a sign reading "Al-Qasam's next targets" with an arrow pointing towards nearby pro-Israel counter-protesters (referring to Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas).

It says students at various schools have also waved signs glorifying figures associated with U.S.-designated terror groups, used pro-Intifada slogans and called for destroying Zionism and either hounding or getting rid of Zionists altogether.

Tensions reached such a boiling point at Columbia that a university-affiliated rabbi urged Jewish students over the weekend to return home for their own safety.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams spoke out against antisemitic incidents and hate speech at Columbia in a statement that referenced specific incidents, including a woman yelling "We are Hamas" and student groups chanting "We don't want no Zionists here."

The White House also released a statement on Sunday condemning the "calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students," saying they have "have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America."

NYPD officers detain a person as pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside of Columbia University on Thursday.
Kena Bentacur / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
NYPD officers detain a person as pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside of Columbia University on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik is facing criticism for her response to the protests.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., is leading New York Republicans' charge to get her to resign, a seeming repeat of the situation in December, when the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania resigned after widely-panned Congressional testimony.

Shafik testified before Congress about the school's response to antisemitism last Wednesday, the day students set up the encampment. In her testimony, Shafik told lawmakers that antisemitism "is not tolerated and it is not acceptable."

The next day, she called in the NYPD to break up the demonstration, which she said violated university policies and posed a "clear and present danger" to its functioning.

Her decision has been widely criticized by groups including the university's own Knight First Amendment Instituteand the American Association of University Professors. Its Columbia and Barnard chapter plans to submit a "resolution of censure" against her and other administration officials, the Columbia Spectator reported Tuesday.

"President Shafik's violation of the fundamental requirements of academic freedom and shared governance, and her unprecedented assault on students' rights, warrants unequivocal and emphatic condemnation," it reads.

In a Monday note to the Columbia community, Shafik said administrators, deans and faculty were working to resolve the situation, including by discussing with protesters what actions the community can take to "peacefully complete the term and return to respectful engagement with each other."

She added that she is aware of the debate around "whether or not we should use the police on campus" and happy to participate in those discussions.

"But I do know that better adherence to our rules and effective enforcement mechanisms would obviate the need for relying on anyone else to keep our community safe," she said. "We should be able to do this ourselves."

Becher, the Barnard professor, said "the actual crisis here is the university leadership's failure to stand up to right-wing actors."

"Our president has, over the past six months and at Congress last week, abandoned our institutions of academic freedom, freedom of expression and turned our campus into a police state," she added. "And now other campuses around the country are following suit."

In a Monday statement, the civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) called on universities to protect peaceful protest but "ensure the swift arrest" of anyone engaging in violence on campus. But it acknowledged the extra challenges posed by this "extraordinarily difficult" moment.

"Tensions are high and nerves are raw," it said. "The charity and grace necessary for productive dialogue are in vanishingly short supply, and it can be difficult to separate protected expression from its opposite. Amidst this intense pressure, our nation's institutions of higher education must lead the way."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]