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Why You’re Hearing All About Chaos at Columbia and Not Brown

Author: Editors Desk, Alexander Sammon is a Slate politics writer. Source: Slate News
May 1, 2024 at 13:53
Columbia University’s campus in New York City on Tuesday night. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images
Columbia University’s campus in New York City on Tuesday night. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Two other universities showed that the school clearly had other options.

On Tuesday night, Columbia University president Nemat Shafik made the stunning decision to call upon the notorious Strategic Response Group of the New York Police Department to descend upon the campus. After New York Mayor Eric Adams announced that the protests had been “co-opted” and threatened Columbia students himself that they should leave “before the situation escalates,” more than 100 cops swept the campus and arrested the university’s nonviolent student protesters for the second time in two weeks. Student journalists—the only journalists allowed on campus due to the university’s crackdown—reported that the cops were forcibly dragging students from Hamilton Hall, the building they had briefly occupied, entering the building with guns drawn and using tear gas during the raid, which resulted in at least one student becoming unconscious. Shafik also requested that the NYPD remain permanently on campus until at least May 17, two days after this academic year’s commencement ceremony.“After the University learned overnight that Hamilton Hall had been occupied, vandalized, and blockaded, we were left with no choice,” said a university spokesman in a statement.

Was there no other choice? No.

Actually, there were plenty of other choices. One example, from just up the Ivy-garlanded I-95, at Brown University, was announced just hours before Shafik again called in the police. Brown’s governing body agreed to vote on a proposal that would divest the school’s endowment of companies affiliated with Israel in a meeting in October. The proposal is based on a 2020 Advisory Committee on Corporation Responsibility in Investment Practices that identified and recommended divestment from “companies that facilitate the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory,” per the Brown Daily Herald.

In exchange, the university’s nonviolent student protesters agreed to vacate their encampment by 5 p.m. that afternoon. Brown University president Christina Paxson was actually on the vanguard of the arresting-your-own-students craze that has since swept the nation; she had a total of 61 of her own students arrested over the course of multiple nonviolent protests starting as far back as December, including 41 student members of the Brown Divest Coalition and 20 Jews for Ceasefire Now members.

But even Paxson had the good sense not to make herself into a national celebrity by pursuing further retaliatory police action against her students, which is why Shafik’s name is in the news and Paxson’s is not.

Another plausible outcome from California: When a similar encampment went up a few days ago at the University of California, Irvine, it seemed likely that police might sweep the protesters away. Orange County sheriff’s deputies began to appear in riot gear near the protest.But, rather than traffic in vague allegations of misconduct before hiding behind a belligerent mayor and an aggressive police force, like Shafik, the UC–Irvine administration took a much different tack. “UC Irvine respects the rights of any students to engage in free speech and expression including lawful protest,” the school said in a prepared statement. This, remember, is at a public school, where keeping public police forces away is more challenging than a private enclave like Columbia.

And in fact, Irvine’s mayor did get involved in the action. Not long after that, Mayor Farrah N. Khan issued a resounding statement declaring that she would not tolerate any violation of students’ free speech or right to assembly. “I am asking our law enforcement to stand down. I will not tolerate any violations to our students’ rights to peacefully assemble and protest.” She asked the deputies to leave, and they did.

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