Student protesters sit watch outside Hamilton Hall, where students at Columbia University continue protesting in support of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the building. Image Credit: REUTERS

New York: US colleges from Columbia to UCLA are rushing to confront pro-Palestinian demonstrations, with disciplinary actions escalating and campus life thrown into turmoil as the academic year comes to a close.

At Columbia in New York, dozens of students entered a campus building known as Hamilton Hall after midnight on Tuesday and barricaded themselves inside, piling tables and chairs to block doors and covering security cameras, the university’s student newspaper reported.

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Tensions were already high after the school earlier began suspending students who refused to leave a pro-Palestinian encampment.

Columbia spokesperson Ben Chang said before the Hamilton Hall takeover that talks with demonstrators who remained on the campus lawn were continuing. The university had set a 2pm Monday deadline for the dismantling of the encampment to make way for the May 15 graduation ceremonies.

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The New York Police Department is on standby near Columbia’s campus, with officers ready to respond if called upon by university officials. The school has been taking a more hands-off approach to avoid a repeat of an incident last week when Columbia President Minouche Shafik called NYPD officers to campus.

That decision led to the arrest of more than 100 protesters, drawing fierce backlash from students and faculty, while sparking a domino effect of pro-Palestinian demonstrations at campuses across the nation.

A demonstrator breaks the windows of the front door of the building in order to secure a chain around it to prevent authorities from entering on Tuesday, April 30, 2024 in New York City. Image Credit: AFP

The university on Monday began suspending activists who refused to dismantle the protest camp.

Shafik said in a statement that days of negotiations between student organizers and academic leaders had failed to persuade demonstrators to remove the dozens of tents.

“We have begun suspending students as part of this next phase of our efforts to ensure safety on our campus,” said Chang.

“The encampment has created an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty and a noisy distraction that interferes with the teaching, learning and preparing for final exams,” Chang said.

Earlier, Shafik said Columbia would not divest from finances in Israel, a key demand of the protesters. Instead, she offered to invest in health and education in Gaza and make Columbia’s direct investment holdings more transparent.

Protesters have vowed to keep their encampment on the Manhattan campus until Columbia meets three demands: divestment, transparency in university finances, and amnesty for students and faculty disciplined for their part in the protests.

“These repulsive scare tactics mean nothing compared to the deaths of over 34,000 Palestinians. We will not move until Columbia meets our demands or we are moved by force,” leaders of the Columbia Student Apartheid Divest coalition said in a statement read at a news conference following the deadline.

Police arrest a protester at the University of Texas in Austin. Image Credit: Reuters

Forceful response

On Monday, protesters at the University of Texas campus in Austin witnessed a forceful response from local law enforcement and state police, some in riot gear. They moved to disperse protesters following threats of arrest for trespassing and disorderly conduct. The tense scenes, captured on social media, showed officers scuffling with protesters, removing makeshift barricades and using pepper spray.

At UCLA, the situation appeared relatively calmer as a group of students and faculty participated in a walkout, calling for the university to sever financial ties with Israel and companies that support the US military’s involvement in the region. Security officials held back from intervening, a contrast to the weekend’s events when campus officers stepped in to separate clashing groups of demonstrators.

Police arrest protesters at the University of Texas in Austin, on April 29, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

Meanwhile, Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, reached an agreement with protesters to clear an encampment, avoiding the confrontations seen at other institutions.

Northwestern President Michael Schill announced the deal in a campus-wide email, which stipulates the immediate removal of tents and sound systems and adherence to university policies by protesters. In exchange, the university has permitted demonstrations to continue on the campus meadow until June 1.

The agreement restricts protest participation to students and university staff and includes the school’s commitment to fund two visiting Palestinian faculty members annually and provide scholarships for five Palestinian undergraduates throughout their academic years. Additionally, the university will provide and renovate a community building for Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students.

“This agreement was forged by the hard work of students and faculty working closely with members of the administration to help ensure that the violence and escalation we have seen elsewhere does not happen here at Northwestern,” Schill said.

Still, a deal like the one at Northwestern remains rare. New York University issued a statement saying efforts to de-escalate a campus protest through dialogue has faltered, forcing the school to resort to “conduct charges.”

“The students have not responded, and they have remained at the site,” according to the statement. “Accordingly and regrettably, NYU is moving forward with disciplinary processes.”

University administrations are striving to restore order before the commencement season begins in the coming weeks, aiming to avoid a similar situation from what occurred at the University of Southern California. Protests at the Los Angeles-based school led to the cancellation of the scheduled main graduation ceremony and the arrest of over 90 students last week.