Updated April 24th, 2024 at 18:55 IST

Protests Across US Universities: What We Know So Far

The trigger for the latest wave of unrest came on April 18th when police cleared tents and arrested over a hundred students at Columbia.

Reported by: Sagar Kar
Police arrest dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia. | Image:AP
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In the ivory towers of America's academia, a storm is brewing. Across American campuses, tensions are reaching a fever pitch as students, administrators, and activists grapple with a volatile mix of antisemitism, free speech controversies, and escalating protests.

According to a report from The Economist, Elisha “Lishi” Baker's journey to Columbia University, an Ivy League institution nestled in the heart of New York City, was fueled by a passion for Middle Eastern history. 

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In his first year, he basked in the intellectual richness of the campus, relishing his identity as a Jewish student. However, the landscape shifted dramatically after the Hamas attacks on Israel last October. Within days, protests erupted, with students calling for an intifada and an unmistakable undercurrent of antisemitism coursing through campus corridors.

On Tuesday, US House Speaker Mike Johnson said that - 

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"Amid anti-Israel protests, Jewish students at Columbia University don't feel safe. It’s become so dangerous that students were forced out of the classroom. Let’s be clear: these are not peaceful protests, these are antisemitic mobs."

What triggered the surge in protests?

The trigger for the latest wave of unrest came on April 18th when police cleared tents and arrested over a hundred students at Columbia, sparking outrage and further inflaming tensions. Jameel Jaffer, from the university’s semi-independent free-speech center, decried the decision as "alarming," questioning the justification for escalating the situation. Layla Saliba, a witness to the arrests, described the scene as "scary," with police in full riot gear swarming the area.

Columbia's President has defended her decision 

Columbia's President, Minouche Shafik, defended the decision to involve law enforcement, citing concerns for campus safety. However, her actions only fueled the fire, with protests spreading beyond Columbia's gates. Over the weekend, several US college campuses, such as Yale and NYU witnessed protests, in solidarity with the demonstrators at Columbia. Demands by student protesters include divestment from Israeli firms, condemnation of Israel's actions in the war, and an end to academic partnerships with Israeli institutions.

A tightrope walk

As tensions mount, university presidents find themselves caught in a delicate balancing act. After witnessing the downfall of leaders at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania due to timid responses to protests, they now grapple with the challenge of policing free speech on campus without stifling dissent. The line between maintaining order and safeguarding academic freedom grows increasingly blurred.

Instances of disruptive behavior by pro-Palestine protestors, such as the shattering of a glass door at a lecture by an Israeli speaker at the University of California, Berkeley, intimidation of Jewish students at Yale, Columbia and NYU, have put administrators on edge. For the rest of the term, Columbia has decided to run classes on a hybrid basis. 

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University administrators caught between a rock and a hard place?

Dr. Shafik's recent appearance before the House Education Committee underscores the complexity of the issue. While she survived the grilling, calls for her resignation persist, highlighting the precarious position of university leaders in today's polarized climate. Threats from donors to withdraw funding and calls for resignation by politicians further complicate matters. 

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Pro-Palestine protestors believe the universities are stifling their right to protest. Pro-Israel students and alumni believe that the universities, by allowing anti-semitic protests, are putting Jewish lives at risk. 

As protests disrupt campus life and classes move online, the future remains uncertain. As of now, the pro-Palestine protestors at Columbia have agreed to dismantle the tents occupying the university's West Lawn, after negotiations that went on till Tuesday night. The pro-Palestine protestors have also agreed to allow only Columbia's students to participate in the protests. 

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However, the clash between free speech and safety concerns shows no signs of abating, leaving students, faculty, and administrators grappling with the fundamental question of how to reconcile competing interests while preserving the integrity of higher education.
 

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Published April 24th, 2024 at 18:55 IST