Organizer of Columbia student protest recounts police raid on campus

Protests have broken out at colleges and universities across the country in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Since April 17, student protesters have been camping out on Columbia University’s campus, demanding that the Ivy League school withdraw its financial support from companies and institutions that “benefit from Israeli apartheid, genocide, and occupation in Palestine,” as stated by the Columbia University Apartheid Divest group.

Columbia’s investments are not widely known to the public as they are not disclosed as public information.

After Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s congressional hearing on antisemitism on campus, the protest at the encampment attracted a larger crowd of demonstrators.

Over 100 protesters were arrested at Columbia University on April 18, the day after Shafik’s testimony. Following Shafik’s approval, the New York Police Department stepped in to remove the on-campus tent encampment and clear the protesters.

According to Shafik, the encampment goes against the new policies, causing major disruptions to campus life and making many students feel harassed and intimidated.

According to Shafik, the acts of breaking Hamilton Hall doors, mistreating Public Safety officers and maintenance staff, and damaging property by students and outside activists are acts of destruction, not political speech. Shafik also expressed concern about the discomfort and unwelcome feelings experienced by many students due to the disruption and antisemitic comments made by certain individuals, particularly during the ongoing protests outside their gates.

Maryam Alwan, a student at Columbia University, found herself in a troubling situation when she was arrested on April 18 by New York City police officers who were clad in riot gear. Along with other protestors, she spent around eight hours in police custody. Surprisingly, despite being instructed not to do so, Alwan made her way back to the Columbia University campus on the very same day.

Despite being suspended, Alwan chose to stay on the Columbia University campus for the following eight days. Each night, she found a place to sleep at a different protestor encampment. Eventually, on April 26, she decided to leave, only to return on April 30, the same day that NYPD officers conducted a raid on Hamilton Hall. During the raid, Alwan and other protestors were held in a separate building while the officers forcefully removed students and outsiders who had invaded and barricaded themselves inside the academic building.

In a conversation with “Start Here” on Thursday, Alwan shared his experiences at Columbia University.

Maryam, could you share your experiences on campus over the past few days?

Maryam Alwan describes the atmosphere as incredibly tense, with the student body and the administration engaged in what can only be described as an all-out war. This conflict reached its peak on Tuesday night.

On the 56th anniversary of the day when the administration arrested over 700 students protesting the Vietnam War and the gentrification of Harlem in 1968, I witnessed a scene where more than 100 police officers, clad in riot gear, descended onto the campus for the second time in two weeks. Their purpose was to arrest over 100 students.

As one of the over 100 students arrested and suspended for participating in the encampment two weeks ago, I personally witnessed the shocking and horrifying events that unfolded on Tuesday night. The level of brutality I observed far surpassed anything I had experienced before. It leaves me uncertain as to how Columbia University will be able to heal and recover from such a traumatic incident.

I want to clarify something. You were initially arrested with the first group of protesters, but then the school decided to halt the arrests and instead started suspending students who were involved. You were one of those students who got suspended, correct? And then, on the night of the police raid on the occupied building, you returned to the school.

Maryam Alwan immediately returned to campus after her arrest, spending approximately seven to 10 days there without going home. Despite being suspended, she chose to stay as part of the community. It was on Tuesday night when something significant occurred.

We wanted to reach the outskirts of the campus to observe the activities from a different perspective.

Even though you shouldn’t be on campus if you’re suspended, right?

I have not been on campus for the past two weeks, so it was not necessary for me to be there.

Filled with adrenaline, I made a quick decision to risk facing further disciplinary action just so I could document the unfolding events. The outcome was that the police forcefully pushed everyone, including the press, observers, student press, official press, legal observers, and medics, back into the building opposite the one that was occupied.

We were forcefully confined inside, giving the impression that the administration and the police were working together to prevent any eyewitnesses.

As they started entering the hall, there was an eerie absence of people in front, while students recorded the scene from their dorms. It’s almost as if we’ve transitioned into an authoritarian state. I’m still struggling to fully comprehend what actually happened.

Last night, the university issued a statement clarifying that the protesters involved in the incident were not peaceful. The building suffered significant damage as a result of their actions.

According to the authorities, out of the 202 arrests made during the raid, only 109 of them were students. This fact highlights the perspective of the police and the university that this protest has evolved beyond being solely a student-led movement. It appears that there were a significant number of individuals from outside groups instigating the occupation of those buildings.

I’d like to know if you believe the statement is true, and if you support the occupation of those buildings.

Maryam Alwan disagrees with the idea that the outside agitator narrative is true. She believes that this narrative has been historically used to delegitimize student movements like Black Lives Matter. According to reports, she states that the majority of the students in the building were actually their classmates and peers who took drastic actions to stand up for what is right.

I won’t say that I endorse property damage or similar acts. However, it is important to acknowledge that on Tuesday night, the police were responsible for causing significantly more property damage and putting lives at risk.

I believe this is the disconnect that many Americans are observing: the school wanted to hold a commencement ceremony, but there was an encampment that they tried to remove, only to have people return.

As students begin to take over buildings, one can imagine the college administration thinking, “Well, this is an even further escalation. Perhaps we should have been more proactive from the beginning, rather than less.” After all, the very buildings that the students utilize are now being damaged. From the students’ perspective, what is the reasoning behind such an escalation?

From our perspective, we believe that the administration has consistently disregarded our concerns and violated its own procedures to suppress our voices. Throughout history, when authorities refuse to listen and resort to crackdowns, it often fuels the people’s determination to rise up against them. This is because they recognize the illegitimacy of excessive force and the exploitation of loopholes.

So, what is it that you want to see happen? Is the only solution to not leave until there is divestment? If that’s the case, then the next question would be, what other outcomes do you anticipate besides the eventual involvement of the police?

Maryam Alwan expressed her willingness to pose a similar question to the administration regarding the ongoing deployment of the police force and the subsequent shock and awareness it generates among the public. She emphasized the interconnectedness of various forms of oppression that affect everyone.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams described the behavior of officers as professional and thorough, noting that there have been no reported hospitalizations so far. Another issue of concern is the safety of Jewish students on campus, who have expressed feeling unsafe amidst these protests. Have there been instances of harassment towards Jewish American students, and is this a concern for the organizers of the protests?

Maryam Alwan wants to highlight the fact that the organizers of the event include members who are Jewish themselves. In fact, SJP and Jewish Voices for Peace, both of which were suspended last semester, have always maintained a close and supportive bond.

Antisemitism spreading on the fringes of social movements is an undeniable reality. However, it is important to acknowledge that steps have been taken to address this issue. Last week, we organized an antisemitism teach-in at the encampment to raise awareness and educate people on this matter.

I find it deeply troubling that there is a tendency to label those advocating for Palestinian rights as inherently antisemitic. This weaponization of criticism detracts from the actual experiences of antisemitism faced by my friends. It is important to recognize that throughout history, student-led social movements that have faced police and state violence have often been on the right side of history. In fact, many of these movements have been commended by schools themselves decades later.

Columbia University’s website itself acknowledges the significance of the protests that took place in 1968. It is my belief that future generations will not view favorably those who support the use of violence against students engaged in peaceful protests.

Hey, are you planning on returning to Columbia next year? Since it’s the end of the year, I was wondering if you have any plans to go back. Keep in mind that attending Columbia requires financial investment. Will you be willing to pay for another year at Columbia?

Maryam Alwan expressed her determination to finish her degree, despite the possibility of being expelled. She also shared her feelings of horror and disillusionment with the administration. However, she mentioned feeling proud to be part of the student body and faculty. Maryam highlighted the valuable knowledge gained from faculty members and scholars, who have now started collaborating with students on an individual level. She never imagined such a scenario while growing up.

I plan to return and work towards creating a renewed Columbia that is guided by the voices of the students, faculty, and academia. This will be a way to counteract the pressures and restrictions imposed by external forces.

Yeah, I never really considered it from this perspective until now. It’s like a dilemma of whether you should distance yourself from the school or stay and keep advocating for these issues as a student. Maryam Alwan is currently still attending the school. Thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.

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