Columbia extends protest deadline after students agree to dismantle some tents

By Thomson Reuters Apr 24, 2024 | 8:39 AM

By Jonathan Allen and Brendan O’Brien

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Columbia University students agreed to take down “a significant number” of the dozens of tents set up on the school’s main campus as part of a protest against Israel’s incursion into Gaza, the New York school said on Wednesday.

The concession by protesters was part of a deal under which Columbia agreed to extend by 48 hours a midnight deadline for the entire encampment to come down, it said in a statement, pointing to “significant progress” in the talks.

A representative of the protesters, who have occupied a lawn at the center of the upper Manhattan campus for days, could not be reached immediately for comment.

The university on Tuesday threatened to invite law enforcement to dismantle the encampment if students had not done so by midnight. On Friday, New York police arrested more than 100 protesters at the encampment at the behest of administrators.

“The encampment raises serious safety concerns, disrupts campus life, and has created a tense and at times hostile environment for many members of our community,” Columbia President Minouche Shafik said late on Tuesday, before the agreement to extend the negotiating deadline. “It is essential that we move forward with a plan to dismantle it.”

The protesters had vowed to keep the protest going until the university agreed to disclose and divest any financial holdings that might support the war in Gaza and granted amnesty to students suspended from school during the demonstrations.

In addition to removing a significant number of tents, the university said student leaders had agreed to make sure that anyone unaffiliated with Columbia leaves the campus, that any activity complies with fire safety rules and that protesters refrain from any discriminatory or harassing language.

Columbia is one of many campuses across the United States where debate over Gaza has grown heated. Some Jewish and Israeli students have complained of a hostile environment and antisemitic remarks that have made them feel unsafe on campus.

Demonstrators contend the protests have been peaceful and that a few outsiders not connected with their movement are responsible for hateful confrontations.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican, was set to visit the campus on Wednesday afternoon to meet Jewish students, deliver remarks and take media questions. The visit follows harsh criticism by Republican lawmakers who say that Columbia’s president has allowed antisemitism and harassment to fester.

Since protests over Israel’s actions in Gaza began last autumn, the presidents of Harvard and University of Pennsylvania have resigned after a storm of similar criticism.

On Tuesday, 25 U.S. Senate Republicans urged the Biden administration to “restore order” on campuses where Jewish students feel threatened.

“I also want to be clear that we will not tolerate intimidating, harassing, or discriminatory behavior,” added Shafik.

“The right to protest is essential and protected at Columbia, but harassment and discrimination is antithetical to our values and an affront to our commitment to be a community of mutual respect and kindness.”

Shafik has raised concerns that extended protests could disrupt graduation ceremonies set for May 15.

The New York Police Department has said it needs to be invited by university authorities to tackle trespassing or camping violations because the campus is private property, but it would act on its own in the event of violent crime.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrea Ricci)