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Historic Gaza Protests Spread to Campuses Across the Country

Meanwhile, Columbia University canceled in-person classes Monday as campus protests enter a sixth day.

Columbia University canceled in-person classes Monday as campus protests over the war in Gaza enter a sixth day. The protests have swelled after the school administration called in the police to clear a student encampment last week, resulting in over 100 arrests. Solidarity protests and encampments have now sprouted up on campuses across the country, including at Yale, MIT, Tufts, NYU, The New School and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Palestinian reporter Jude Taha, a journalism student at Columbia University, describes events on campus as “an unprecedented act of solidarity” that student organizers are modeling on antiwar protests in 1968. She says Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s claims of an unsafe environment on campus are contradicted by the generally calm and productive atmosphere among the protesters, adding that the school’s heavy-handed response, including suspensions and evictions, is being seen as “an intimidation tactic” by organizers.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin here in New York, where Columbia University has canceled in-person classes today as campus protests over Israel’s war on Gaza enter a sixth day. Classes will be held online today. The protests have swelled after the arrest last week of over 100 students who had set up an encampment to call for the school to divest from Israel. Organizers say at least 50 students have been suspended from Barnard, 35 from Columbia. A growing number of Columbia and Barnard alumni, employees and guest speakers have also publicly condemned or announced they’re boycotting the prestigious institutions.

Over the weekend, solidarity protests and encampments also began on other college campuses here in New York City at NYU, at The New School, as well as across the country, including at Yale, MIT, Tufts, Vanderbilt and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

We’re joined right now by two guests. In a moment we’ll speak with Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, who addressed students participating in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment on Columbia’s campus multiple times last week. But we begin with Jude Taha, Palestinian Jordanian journalist and journalism student at Columbia University Journalism School. She’s on Columbia’s campus here in New York, where the student-led Gaza Solidarity Encampment is still underway. She’s joining us from her school at Columbia Journalism School right now.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jude. Can you lay out what’s happened over the weekend, what are people’s demands, and the fact that today, the president — who all this happened a day after she testified before Congress — has shut down the university for in-person classes, all online today?

JUDE TAHA: Thank you for having me.

Right now what we’re seeing at Columbia is an unprecedented act of solidarity, set up by students who initially set it up on the South Lawn and then faced violent arrests and a lot of repression from administration and ended up moving to the opposing lawn. And what we’re seeing right now is just swaths of people, initially without tents, sleeping on the ground, in sleeping bags, some of them without sleeping bags, on grass, outside in the cold, under the rain.

And what we’re seeing is just they have three solid demands. The first is divestment. The second is for Columbia to disclose their financial investments and the financial records, especially in relation to their workings with Israel. And the third is amnesty toward students. The students have been very clear in the fact that they are not moving, that they are very set in their demands.

Some negotiations are happening, from what I’ve heard from organizers at the encampment. However, nothing has been announced yet. I know there are a few things that came up yesterday that were a bit surprising, which was the repitching of the tents. Organizers have said that the administration is aware of the tents; however, that does not necessarily mean that they agree. Organizers held a town hall last night where they emphasized that, obviously, with an act of solidarity and act of protest as large as this, to take over the space in the lawn comes a level of risk. And they are very comfortable in that. They are making sure everyone is aware. There is transparency, and there’s just a community being built. And they are very clear in their demands. They have three top demands, first and furthermost which is divestment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jude, if you can talk about the whole progression of what happened, from Shafik, President Shafik, testifying before Congress to these, I won’t say “unprecedented,” arrests — over a hundred students were arrested — but since, I think, 1968, the protests against the Vietnam War?

JUDE TAHA: I think what had happened initially was students showed up at the lawn at around 4:30 a.m. They are members of a solidarity group called Columbia University Apartheid Divest, which is made up of many student groups. And they had been planning this for months, according to my interviews with organizers. They studied the 1968 protests. They studied the tactics used. And they were prepared to go. Initially, we did not know this as outsiders. The tents were set up, and a lot of people were caught off guard. But this has been something that the organizers have planned for, especially in relation to Minouche Shafik’s hearing. But what happened is, after they set up tents, we quickly saw an outpour of support. Picket lines were forming. Students were joining from outside. And initially what I saw to be like 40 to 50 students is now, on the opposite lawn, nearly a hundred to a hundred students coming in and out of the encampment.

The arrests were shocking. However, what was truly inspiring to see is that students did not let that deter them. Shortly after the arrests were carried out and after protests were surrounding the lawn where the original encampment was at, students starting jumping into the opposing lawn and pitching up tents there. And this is a reaction not only to Columbia’s silencing of students and the fact that students feel unheard, uncared for and not represented well by the institution that they attend, but this is also, very much so, focused towards the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the way the students are feeling, seeing the massacres happen every day, with nearly over 30,000 people have been killed. Their frustration is that they are complicit in this and their university is complicit in this. And they want to make sure that their voices are heard. And they want to make sure that what they’re asking is met. And so, this is inspired by the 1968 protests. They just decided to follow course.

AMY GOODMAN: So, something unusual was tweeted on Friday. You’re speaking to us from the Columbia J School, from the Columbia Journalism School.

JUDE TAHA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I had just been at the protest after the arrests, the encampment on Thursday night. To say the least, it was not easy for anyone to get in who did not have a student ID. Even that won’t get you in right now. It was a true lockdown. And the next morning, at about 10:00, where you are, the Columbia J School tweeted, “Columbia Journalism School is committed to a free press. If you are a credentialed member of the media and have been denied access to campus, please send us a DM. We will facilitate access to campus.” This is a direct rebuke of the president, of President Shafik?

JUDE TAHA: I cannot — I cannot speak to that. I do know that our dean, Jelani Cobb, is very committed to having a space where freedom of press can thrive. And I know that Dean Cobb has been incredibly supportive of the students who have been reporting on this and is very interested in ensuring that media has access and that information is being transferred clearly and accurately. Whether it is a direct rebuke, that is unfortunately not something I am aware of.

However, I will say that since then, facilitating entrance has been increasingly challenging. I am not sure of the dynamics of the journalism school. I have been speaking with multiple journalists who are coming in to cover the encampment, and increasingly it’s been harder and harder to try and get them in. There has not been really any clear guidelines that I can share about what does that entail for the journalism school to facilitate, but what I have also been seeing is people are believing that the facilitation through the journalism school means access to the encampment. And I would like to emphasize the encampment is not facilitating with the journalism school. It is an entity that is functioning on its own. And it is a living space as much as it is, you know, a private space within the university. Students are very vulnerable there. They’re also very hesitant to speak to media. But while they do believe that the media presence is important, there has been this notion of belief that the journalism is facilitating access into the encampment, which is not true. The journalism school is helping facilitate entrance into campus for credentialed press.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you also can talk about what the police chief said in response to the Columbia president? New York Police Chief John Chell said President Shafik identified the demonstration as a “clear and present danger,” but that officers found the students to be peaceful and cooperative, Shafik warning all students participating in the encampment would be suspended. And the level of suspensions, Jude, if you can talk about that, both at Columbia and even more at Barnard, and what exactly this means? Students are locked out of their rooms almost immediately and lose their meal cards in addition to everything else?

JUDE TAHA: Yeah. To be quite honest, we have — me and a few other journalists have been reporting on this for months now. We are familiar with these students. We are familiar with these demands. And we were present from day one, from nearly 6:00 in the morning, in the original encampment. And there was no instance of violence that I am able to report. The protesters were incredibly peaceful. Their demands are largely focused on divestment. And they have community guidelines that they are asking everyone who is entering the encampment to abide by. And the community guidelines are to ensure safety, are to ensure that everyone feels comfortable in the space and to ensure that Gaza is being centered first.

In relation to what the police chief said, I have to agree that I was not able to identify any violence or any danger that is present from these students, especially right now in the second encampment, where there is a thriving community, where people are bringing food, blankets. Students are leaving their belongings, their personal belongings, for hours with no worry that they will be taken. There is no fear amongst them.

Therefore, it is truly an intimidation tactic, and the response that we have seen from President Minouche Shafik has been incredibly disheartening toward students. Students have been evicted. An organizer that I’ve spoken to yesterday is terrified. They are not comfortable walking out alone. They had to leave the state. They are being given 15 minutes to access their belongings. They are being suspended, with waiting for an appeal or waiting for a meeting with administration to understand the grounds of the suspension or what that entails. They are leaving students in limbo. The students do not feel supported. They do not know where they’re going. And it is incredibly disheartening and terrifying, for some are 18-, 19-year-olds, to be deserted by their campus.

And another thing is that the organizers have made it clear that this is an intimidation tactic by the administration, and especially in relation to President Shafik’s email that was sent at 1 a.m. last night. The organizers have stated that this is an intimidation tactic to try and scare people who are in the encampment out of their solidarity with the Gaza Solidarity Encampment and with the demands of the movement. But a lot of students are learning these risks, and they’re banding together and they’re standing together to demand amnesty. It is unclear why this is happening or the levels of suspension. Students who have been suspended but have not been evicted are concerned about when are they going to lose access to their housing. And students who have lost access to their housing were not given any clear instructions, as far as I know, for where to go next. So it is just this great limbo. And these students are sacrificing a lot for the movement and for the demands that they are asking for, but they are not being met with any support from administration or guidance. And it is unclear what President Shafik is citing when she says “danger.” And therefore, that is leaving a lot of organizers confused as to what is actually happening.

AMY GOODMAN: And among those arrested was Congressmember Ilhan Omar’s daughter, Isra Hirsi, both suspended and arrested. And finally, very quickly, before we go to professor Mamdani, the J school speaker for May 15th — and this is a long time away, so we’ll see what happens — is the Haaretz Israeli reporter Amira Hass, deeply critical of the occupation, of the war on Gaza, lived in Gaza, the only Israeli Jewish journalist to have lived there for years. Is that right?

JUDE TAHA: Yep, that is correct. As far as we know, that has not been changed. The speaker has been chosen for quite a long time now. And as far as I know, that has not been changed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jude Taha, I want to thank you for being with us.

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