On Friday, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) hosted a protest to encourage students to participate in the tuition strike and send a message to the University to lay “hands off Yemen and Gaza.”

Despite snow and freezing temperatures, students gathered on Low Steps at 1 pm on Friday to participate in the CU Apartheid Divest Emergency Protest. The protest was in part a boycott of Barnard’s Day of Dialogue and Reflection being held at the same time, but also served to encourage participation in the CU Tuition Strike, and to voice general grievances with the University regarding recent events in Gaza.

Day of Dialogue

Barnard canceled all Friday classes so students could “engage with prominent Palestinian and Israeli scholars and advocates” through day-long organized programming, according to an email sent by the SGA President and University Senator. The event, titled “Toward a Beloved Community: A Day of Dialogue and Reflection,” aimed to encourage students to approach dialogue with an open mind and “make space to learn from each other,” they wrote.

The event included presentations and workshops by guest speakers surrounding themes of community and communication. A storytelling workshop was hosted by College faculty and student Writing Fellows where students analyzed literature to “understand more deeply the human dimension of this worldwide crisis,” Jennifer Rosales, Vice President for Inclusion and Engaged Learning and Chief Diversity Officer, wrote.

The Day of Dialogue garnered much attention from the Barnard and Columbia student bodies. Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and BC/CU Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) posted an infographic on Instagram calling out the event for being a form of normalization, where they claim an issue is presented as having two equal sides rather than acknowledging power dynamics or oppression at play. They wrote that the event is an “illusion of promoting dialogue” and “distract[s] from [the College’s] own complicity in genocide,” calling for a boycott of the event.

Some participants in the boycott stood outside the Diana Event Oval Friday morning chanting and holding signs that read “we are boycotting this event” and “morals > donors” as the first of the day’s events was taking place.

The Protest

At 1 pm, students and faculty gathered on Low Steps around Alma Mater. Many protesters were wearing keffiyehs or holding Palestinian flags and handmade signs. They began a series of chants led by several protesters at the front of the group with megaphones and drums. Some of the signs held by protesters read “Money talks, strike tuition,” “No justice, no payment,” and “Say the word genocide,” among others. 

Protesters embrace.

Before the protest began, a group of counter-protesters had already established themselves on Low Plaza opposite Alma Mater. They waved Israeli and American flags and held orange balloons, a symbol for the red-haired Bibas children, who were taken hostage by Hamas. 

The counter-protesters held signs with the names of people who had been taken hostage by Hamas. As the CUAD protesters continued to chant, so did the counter-protesters. “Bring the baby home, 105 days,” they shouted in reference to Israeli hostages. 

As the protest continued, the CUAD group grew until protesters took up the middle section of Low Steps, stretching to the railings on either edge. They called for Palestinian liberation “from the river to the sea,” chanting that “we will free Palestine within our lifetime.”

Two large posters with the faces of Columbia President Minouche Shafik and Barnard President Laura Rosenbury were held up in the center of the group with the words “Sell out,” “Bootlicker,” and “Racist” written on them. Protesters called for President Shafik to “open [her] eyes” and “say the word genocide.”

Faculty members then took the microphone and read the names of faculty and staff of Gazan universities that have been killed. The counter-protesters, now facing the CUAD protest, continued chanting while playing music and sounding sirens. One member of the counter-protest began shouting at the CUAD group, saying that the phrase “From the river to the sea” is a call for genocide.

The protesters moved on to other chants, with one including the word “intifada,” an Arabic word meaning shaking off or uprising. A member of the counter-group spoke into a megaphone in reply to the chant, saying, “FYI, that’s a call for uprising and terrorism.” 

Previously, President Rosenbury also condemned the use of these popular phrases in her email on December 22, saying that they are “deeply hurtful to many members of [the] community.”

As both groups continued to chant and host speakers, some CUAD protesters with a Palestinian flag moved to stand directly in front of the counter-group. As the counter protesters chanted about bringing babies home, a member of the CUAD group approached them, responding that they need the “babies that [Israel] killed in Gaza.”

Speakers continued to issue calls for action and lead the CUAD protesters in chants. A large banner which read “CU Jews 4 Ceasefire” hung towards the front of the group. The CUAD group continued to grow, extending beyond the steps and into Low Plaza. Counter protesters remained on the south side of the Plaza. 

Protesters bear posters in support of Palestine.

The protesters then began to march. The group walked up Low Steps and circled the building before coming back towards Butler Library. They walked up the main walkway in front of Butler and stopped there to chant before returning to Low Steps, this time climbing to the top of the stairs and directing their chants inside the building. 

As the protest began to wind down, leaders made several closing remarks. They implored protesters to keep up with the situation in Palestine, CU Apartheid Divest, and the CU Tuition Strike. They declared that this semester they “refuse to police [their] actions,” a reference to the University’s suspension of SJP and JVP and their protests in the fall

A speaker reads the names of Gaza faculty who have died.

The Aftermath

Since their suspension, SJP and JVP have held a number of protests, some of which the University has explicitly called out as violating University Event Policies and therefore being unauthorized. It has also led to the resurgence of CU Apartheid Divest, a coalition of student groups that “see Palestine as a vanguard for [their] collective liberation,” they wrote in a Columbia Spectator op-ed.

Acts of protest against the University have also come in the form of the CU Tuition Strike, where students have been encouraged to refuse to pay their tuition or refuse to donate to the University in the future. The demands of the strike include divestment from Israel, transparency regarding investments and finances, transparency regarding management of public safety, and ceasing contact with NYPD for the purpose of crowd control on campus. 

After the protest, Columbia SJP posted an Instagram story claiming that pro-Palestine students may have been “stink-bombed” and that participants near the speakers during the protest may smell an odor on their clothing. “This is illegal,” a post read. “We are compiling proof at the moment and would appreciate any testimonies or information.” 

A later post on the Columbia SJP Instagram attested that the group investigated the matter and concluded that protesters were allegedly sprayed with Skunk, which they described as a “foul-smelling liquid” that was allegedly developed in 2008 by Israeli soldiers “as a crowd-control weapon for use against Palestinians.”  A 2015 article from the BBC states that the liquid in question, “Skunk” was created in 2008 by an Israeli firm called Odortec. The post claimed that the group identified two people who allegedly sprayed the liquid by discreetly joining the crowd of protestors, wearing keffiyehs. The post further claimed that the perpetrators are former IDF soldiers. 

SJP continued their statement, writing that Columbia’s administration has “done absolutely nothing” about harassment reports from pro-Palestine students while emphasizing that the alleged Skunk spraying is the “imported use of an illegal weapon” and a “hate crime that has permanently destroyed the property of dozens of students.” 

This is a developing story.

Update made on Sunday, January 21 at 4:06 pm:

According to a Columbia official, the administration is aware of social media posts on an “alleged incident” that took place at Friday’s protest. That evening, one complaint was filed with Public Safety. The University is currently in contact with the NYPD.

The official further stated that Friday’s protest violated University policies and was therefore unsanctioned, writing that these policies exist to maintain personnel on scene for the safety of the community.

Bwog has reached out to the NYPD for comment.

Update made on Sunday, January 21 at 5:49 pm:

Two images on this article have been updated to reflect visible posters which had been previously partially blurred.

Images of protest via Bwog Staff