The steps in front of Low Memorial Library at Columbia University have been the site of major campus protests since the 1960s. But when pro-Palestinian demonstrators tried to organize a rally there last Thursday, the area was barricaded off.
When the students instead joined a rally on the streets outside of campus the next day, they were greeted by rows of police officers. The scene was heated; 15 people were taken into custody.
Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, Columbia has been under intense pressure to rein in pro-Palestinian protests that accuse Israel of genocide and call for a cease-fire. The protests have not been violent, but some donors, trustees and students say they reflect and foment antisemitism. In response, Columbia and Barnard, the university’s sister school, have sought to enforce rules requiring extensive advance notice and barring anything that might disrupt campus activities.
The measures have reduced protests. But, some students say, they have also violated free speech rights, and challenged long traditions of political protest on campuses that were historically the scenes of raucous rallies about everything from the Vietnam War to South African apartheid.
And by limiting campus demonstrations about the war, the students say, the school is pushing them onto the city’s streets, where protests can sometimes turn dangerous.
Often organized by established activist groups, the demonstrations have shut down traffic and shut off access to city landmarks, and the police have responded in force and made numerous arrests.
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