4 weeks ago

Pro-Palestinian protests sweep US campuses as House speaker heads to Columbia to voice ‘disgust’

Tensions over pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University, and campuses across the US, continued to rise on Wednesday as Mike Johnson, the Republican House speaker, prepared to visit the New York institution to address what he called “virulent antisemitism” at colleges nationwide.

The demonstrations, which began last week after students at Columbia set up encampments calling for the university to divest from weapons manufacturers with ties to Israel, have swept to campuses across the country, with mass suspensions and arrests of students.

As temperatures rose, Kathy Hochul, the Democratic governor of New York, called Johnson’s trip “divisive”, while Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez assailed authorities for the “reckless and dangerous act” of calling police to nonviolent demonstrations, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

Johnson, in a morning radio interview, said he would be calling for the resignation of Minouche Shafik, Columbia’s president, during a press conference at the university’s New York City campus on Wednesday afternoon. He accused her of failing to protect Jewish students and allowing protests that led to the arrest of dozens of people there last week.

“This president has shown to be a very weak, inept leader. They cannot even guarantee the safety of Jewish students? They’re expected to run for their lives and stay home from class? It’s just maddening,” he told radio host Hugh Hewitt, referring to Columbia’s decision to provide virtual classes for the remainder of the semester.

“What we’re seeing on these college campuses across the country is disgusting and unacceptable. Every leader in this country, every political official, every citizen of good conscience, has to speak out and say that this is not who we are in America.”

Hochul accused Johnson of “politicizing” the issue, and “adding to the division”, according to the New York Post. “There’s a lot more responsibilities and crises to be dealt with in Washington,” she said.

Campus protests have grown across the US this week, with thousands attending marches or setting up encampments at universities from Massachusetts to California, leading to scores of arrests. Students in Los Angeles posted to X, formerly Twitter, photographs of their occupation of the University of Southern California’s Alumni Park.

a group of people in a circle on a quad
Student and community members perform a traditional Palestine dance at Cal Poly Humboldt on 23 April 2024 in Arcata, California. Photograph: Paul Kitagaki Jr/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

“We, the USC Divest from Death Coalition, establish our occupation most fundamentally in solidarity with the people of Palestine as they resist genocide and continue in their struggle for liberation,” the group, calling itself the People’s City Council, wrote.

Signs around the encampment laid out the students’ demands to the university, including full transparency of USC endowment and investments, as well as divesting from Israel. Students also protested university’s cancellation of the valedictorian speech of Muslim student Asna Tabassum, who had posted on social media in support of Palestine, earlier this month.

There have also been protests at the University of California, Berkeley, and at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, where protesters barricaded themselves in a university building using furniture, tents, chains and zip ties.

Rows of tents have been added to a cluster set up on the steps of UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall at the center of campus. Starting with just a dozen, more students have joined the “Free Palestine Camp” over the last three days, a sit-in demanding their school sever its financial connections to BlackRock and other asset managers they see as complicit for financing genocide in Gaza.

UC Berkeley holds a $427m investment in a BlackRock portfolio and school officials have commented that a change in their investment strategy is not on the table. There is minimal police or security presence on site, but the students say they are bracing for that to change. The group is determined to stay even if the university tries to have them forcibly removed.

The protestors are also calling for an academic boycott, which would end collaborations with Israeli universities and the establishment of a new Palestinian Studies program.

On Wednesday, Shafik said she had extended by 48 hours a deadline for talks with protest leaders for the dismantling of a tent encampment on Columbia’s west lawn. More than 100 people were arrested at the university last week, and more than 140 students, faculty members and others were arrested on Monday night at a separate protest at New York University’s Manhattan campus.

After testifying before the Republican-led House of Representatives last week over claims of rising antisemitism, Shafik authorized the New York police department to break up previous student encampments, sparking a furore when they arrested over more than 100 students. Columbia’s affiliate school, Barnard College, also suspended and evicted at least 53 students from college housing.

“Calling in police enforcement on nonviolent demonstrations of young students on campus is an escalatory, reckless and dangerous act,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet.

“It represents a heinous failure of leadership that puts people’s lives at risk. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Some Jewish students at Columbia, meanwhile, said they had been physically blocked by protestors from attending classes, and subjected to racial hatred by demonstrators demanding a ceasefire in Gaza and for the university to divest from companies linked to Israel’s military operations.

Protest organizers blame outside actors for particularly inflammatory rhetoric against Jewish students.

a man with short dark hair and glasses
Mike Johnson at the US Capitol in Washington DC on 20 April 2024. Photograph: Annabelle Gordon/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

Johnson’s visit to Columbia on Wednesday follows a number of other trips there this week by bipartisan groups of politicians. Three competing delegations attended on Monday, Axios reported, with the entirety of New York’s Republican congressional delegation demanding Shafik’s resignation, and Democrats criticizing her for not protecting Jewish students and faculty.

The White House has called the protests “blatantly antisemitic”, and condemned “violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students”.

In an email on Monday, Shafik said she was “deeply saddened” by the events. “Our bonds as a community have been severely tested in ways that will take a great deal of time and effort to reaffirm,” she wrote.

“The decibel of our disagreements has only increased in recent days. These tensions have been exploited and amplified by individuals who are not affiliated with Columbia who have come to campus to pursue their own agendas. We need a reset.”

In announcing his visit, scheduled for late afternoon Wednesday, Johnson said he would “deliver remarks and take questions regarding the troubling rise of virulent antisemitism on America’s college campuses”.

The speaker, however, drew quick criticism for the high-profile visit, during which he said he would also tour the school, have lunch with Jewish students and join Republican politicians at a press conference.

Hochul, who called the Columbia protest “visceral” following a visit on Monday, told reporters Wednesday: “I’d encourage the speaker to go back and perhaps take up the migrant bill, the bill to deal with closing the border, so we can deal with a real crisis that New York has.

“Politicizing this and bringing the entourage to put a spotlight on this is only adding to the division and a speaker worth the title should really be trying to heal people and not divide them.”

She said her own visit this week was private: “I did not bring press with me. I wanted to have a substantive conversation about public safety with the [university] president, with campus security, with the NYPD.”

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