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Pro-Palestinian student groups say an autonomous group has occupied Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall

WorldPro-Palestinian student groups say an autonomous group has occupied Columbia University's Hamilton Hall

Pro-Palestinian student groups described the students who have occupied Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall since early Tuesday as an “autonomous” subgroup of those involved in the encampment that had overtaken the Ivy League campus’ West Lawn.

Student groups, including Columbia Student Apartheid Divest and Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, said they are not specifically organizing the occupation of the academic building. But the groups say those inside intend to remain there until the university concedes to demands centered on divesting its endowment from companies that they contend are profiting from Israel’s war in Gaza.

“I’m not inside, so I can’t speak to their state of mind right now, but from everything I know from speaking with student protesters on campus, we have all taken risks to our safety, our careers, our education,” a woman who said she is a member of Columbia Student Apartheid Divest told reporters Tuesday afternoon, declining to give her name.

“We are willing to take on an extremely minor amount of risk compared to what the heroic people of Gaza are dealing with every single day,” she added.

On Tuesday, with Hamilton Hall’s doors barricaded, students used a milk crate on a pulley to lift supplies into the building through an upper-floor window. At one point, someone stood on the roof to wave a Palestinian flag, energizing demonstrators below.

Despite the tumultuous events at the school, the campus was largely quiet Tuesday after Monday was the last day of classes for the spring semester, with final exams due to begin Friday. A small rally in support of protesters was held Tuesday outside Hamilton Hall, where a “Free Palestine” banner hung from a window. The building, named after Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first treasury secretary, was a base for Columbia students demonstrating against the U.S.’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

In a statement Tuesday, university spokesman Ben Chang said the protests have created an “untenable situation,” as students smashed windows to get inside Hamilton Hall and barricaded doors. While it is unclear exactly how many are inside, the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, reported that “dozens” entered after the school began suspending students who defied a deadline of Monday afternoon to leave the tent encampment.

A Pro-Palestinian protester who is occupying Hamilton Hall looks out onto a crowd at Columbia University in New York on Tuesday.Michael M. Santiago / Pool via AP
Pro-Palestinian protesters occupy space at an entrance to Hamilton Hall on Tuesday. Michael M. Santiago / AP

“Students occupying the building face expulsion,” Chang warned.

Columbia did not immediately respond to a request for further comment. In a virtual call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Chang also said “dozens” of students were inside Hamilton Hall. He reiterated that students who had not complied with the school’s request for them to dismantle the encampment and disperse were being suspended and have been denied access to academic and recreational spaces and that, if they are seniors, they would be ineligible to graduate.

“Disruptions on campus have created a threatening environment for many,” Chang said, adding that the steps the school is taking are “about responding to the actions of the protesters, not their cause.”

Some students say the protest inside Hamilton Hall, renamed by those inside as “Hind’s Hall” — for a 6-year-old Palestinian girl killed in February amid the fighting in Gaza — is necessary to prod the university administration to their side.

A member of the school’s Student Governing Board, Mohammad Hemeida, a junior studying history and political science, said that “when the administration doesn’t listen to our demands and ignores the student body,” then it’s “time for an escalation.”

“It’s absolutely no surprise that they’re threatening students inside, as well, with expulsion,” Hemeida said.

Columbia University Issues Deadline For Gaza Encampment To Vacate Campus
Demonstrators supporting Palestinians in Gaza barricade themselves Monday night inside Hamilton Hall, where the dean’s office is located.Alex Kent / Getty Images
Image: Columbia University Issues Deadline For Gaza Encampment To Vacate Campus
Demonstrators supporting Palestinians in Gaza barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall on Monday night. Alex Kent / Getty Images

“I think it’s entirely expected of the administration,” he added, in the wake of the more than 100 Columbia students’ being arrested and issued summonses for trespassing two weeks ago for setting up an initial encampment on the school’s South Lawn.

At the time, university President Nemat “Minouche” Shafik said in a memo to police that the encampment and the related disruptions “pose a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University.”

A New York police official said the officers would enter Columbia’s upper Manhattan campus only at the orders of the university or because of an emergency.

At a news conference Tuesday evening, police officials and New York Mayor Eric Adams accused “professional outside agitators” of being part of the occupation of Hamilton Hall. Adams has previously accused outsiders of arranging the encampment at the school — a form of protest that has sprouted up on college campuses across the country, leading to dozens of arrests as tensions between students and schools mount.

The police department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism said the concern with the outside group at Columbia is that it is using and teaching the types of tactics that will make it difficult for police to enter buildings and that it appears the group is “preparing for a fight” if police do enter.

Deputy Commissioner Rebecca Weiner told NBC News that the group can best be described as anarchists who, as she said at the news conference, are well known to police.

The police department said it could not quantify how many of those occupying Hamilton Hall are outsiders and how many are students.

Buildings on Columbia’s campus were largely locked down Tuesday as a “safety measure,” officials said, and students who do not reside in campus residence halls were prohibited from entering and performing routine tasks, like obtaining food from the dining hall or returning library books.

Protestors and supporters said they were bracing for what is to come.

Maryam Alwan, who was arrested and suspended when Columbia called in police to the campus this month, described suspensions announced Tuesday as “arbitrary,” alleging they included one student who was not in New York City when the deadline arrived. 

“It just feels like this university is so far beyond the law and their own policies and regulations that all of us have no idea what could come,” Alwan said. “We might be targeted by association.”

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