Law in Contemporary Society
Spring at Columbia University this year was both vibrant and unsettling. Police helicopters often hovered over the main quad, where a sign at the edge of a newly established encampment declared, “Welcome to the People’s University for Palestine.” The tent city was set up by students protesting Israel's military actions in Gaza. As a Columbia student, I was curious to see what was happening and understand the dynamics of the protest.

The university administration claimed that the encampment “disrupted the learning environment” and posed safety risks. Intrigued by these claims, I decided to observe the situation myself. As I entered the encampment, I noticed tables laden with food and water. The students had organized a first-aid station, a tent for charging devices, and a "people’s library" filled with books. A schedule board announced upcoming guest lectures, and a space was set aside for spiritual care. The previous day, students had hosted an interfaith Seder, and on Friday, Muslim students gathered for prayer. The scene was vibrant with students reading, studying, creating art, and engaging in discussions. Despite the administration's concerns, I initially did not witness any significant disruption.

A student announced via microphone that items on the periphery needed to be moved due to fire safety concerns. These were belongings left behind by students forcibly removed from a previous encampment by the police. The students, demonstrating a high level of organization and cooperation, repeated the message to ensure it was understood and then began moving the items. However, the situation took a significant turn when students decided to occupy Hamilton Hall, a historic site of student protests. The administration had warned that such actions could lead to severe consequences. Despite these warnings, the occupation of Hamilton Hall marked a clear escalation from peaceful protest to actions that posed real safety risks. According to university policy, any situation presenting a "clear and present danger" would be addressed with appropriate force to ensure campus safety.

In this case, the occupation of a major building like Hamilton Hall was a significant disruption. The building has a storied history of protests, from civil rights to anti-Vietnam War movements. However, watching footage of protesters smashing windows and vandalizing university property was shocking and disheartening. The university's decision to call in the NYPD, while controversial, was based on the need to mitigate what they perceived as an immediate threat to safety and order on campus. The presence of helicopters and drones, coupled with police checkpoints, created an atmosphere of tension and suspicion. Students were allowed through some checkpoints, but faculty were barred, and even deliveries of food and water were scrutinized. When authorities issued a warning to clear the area, threatening disciplinary action, I watched online as the NYPD, in full riot gear, forcibly removed students from Hamilton Hall. It was unsettling to see such scenes unfold on my campus, transforming it into a heavily policed environment.

In my view, the majority of the students involved in the protest were exercising their First Amendment rights peacefully. However, it was unfortunate that a small group of extremists, many of whom were not affiliated with Columbia, chose to vandalize university property. This escalation undermined the legitimacy of the protest and posed genuine safety concerns. The events at Columbia have had far-reaching implications, spreading to campuses across the country and even internationally. In my home country of Italy, students began protesting and mimicked the encampment at Columbia. It served as a stark reminder that students at institutions like Columbia have the power to initiate international movements. With that power comes the responsibility to conduct themselves decently. The antisemitic incidents that occurred were horrific and unacceptable, and risk overshadowing the broader goals of the protest. These incidents could lead many to view the entire movement as rooted in antisemitism, whereas, in reality, it was much more nuanced and brought together multiple religions on one university campus.

In conclusion, while I support my peers' right to protest, the actions of a few individuals created a situation that warranted a strong response. Notwithstanding, the university leadership made significant errors in judgment, starting with the premature decision to bring the NYPD onto campus when the protest was still a peaceful gathering of students, and escalating to an unnecessary transformation of the campus into a heavily policed environment for weeks leading up to graduation. Moving forward, we can only hope that the student body and the university leadership will find a balanced approach that guarantees freedom of assembly and public safety.


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r3 - 04 Jun 2024 - 22:06:18 - PieroZanon
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