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NYC police used force to clear a pro-Palestinian student encampment at Columbia

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Confrontations between pro-Palestinian demonstrators and counterprotesters at the University of California, Los Angeles have turned violent. What appeared to be dozens of police officers arrived after local TV video showed people trying to pummel one another with their fists, sticks and pieces of barricades. Across the country, the pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University is gone this morning, and the campus building that protesters had seized is empty. Police forced their way into the building and arrested and zip-tied the hands of dozens of students who began their demonstration two weeks ago. NPR's Brian Mann was just off campus. He joined us now, Brian. What did you see?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. Hundreds of students were defiant at first day. They were chanting anti-Israel slogans and calling for divestment from doing business with Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Intifada, intifada.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Intifada, intifada.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Long live the intifada.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Long live the intifada.

MANN: At one point, A, student appeared on top of Hamilton Hall. That's the building they occupied Monday night. That student waved a Palestinian flag. But then around 9:30 p.m. last night, a huge number of NYPD officers in riot gear charged the campus.

(YELLING)

MANN: And the student crowd fell back. They were clearly frightened. The NYPD used a massive armored vehicle to push a bridge into a window of Hamilton Hall. Officers then streamed over that bridge into a window quickly retaking the building.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow, what a scene. How did students react to all this?

MANN: Yeah, with shock and dismay. I spoke to one student who was stunned by the overwhelming force. She wouldn't give her name because she fears reprisal by Columbia University.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Myself and many other students have just felt horror seeing the swiftness with which the NYPD came and deploy themselves onto our campus.

MANN: And many of these students now face suspension and expulsion, some likely also facing criminal penalties.

MARTÍNEZ: So did Columbia University offer any explanation as to why they called in the NYPD to end this protest?

MANN: Yeah. At a press conference yesterday, Columbia spokesman Ben Chang said protesters were frightening other students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN CHANG: Disruptions on campus have created a threatening environment for many, including our Jewish students and faculty.

CHANG: Disruptions on campus have created a threatening environment for many, including our Jewish students and faculty.

MANN: And New York City Mayor Eric Adams also condemned the student protests yesterday, calling them a violent spectacle. Campus officials say they want the NYPD to now remain on campus to maintain security.

MARTÍNEZ: Last night, New York police also made arrests outside of student camp at the City College of New York. What happened there?

MANN: Yeah. Less than a mile away from Columbia University, another huge NYPD force swept in to round up student protesters. Here's what that sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUTOMATED VOICE: If you do not accompany the rescuing officer voluntarily to the prisoner transport vehicle or resist arrest, we need to charge for your additional crime.

MANN: And, A, NPR's Jasmine Garsd and Quil Lawrence watched there as police clashed with protesters and used pepper spray, large number of students again hauled away.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow, so a lot happening. Any sense of what people are saying about this show of force by the NYPD?

MANN: You know, many politicians in New York City, including bipartisan members of Congress have condemned these protests, describing them as unlawful and antisemitic. That's a charge many students reject. There's also been a lot of community support for these encampments. NPR spoke last night with Leena Widdi, who watched this police action. She's a graduate of City College.

LEENA WIDDI: Students are putting their lives at risk. They're putting their jobs, their diplomas at risk 'cause they know that they're fighting for something bigger, which is the right to life for Palestinians.

MANN: This huge police action mirrors hundreds of other student arrests around the country, A, as Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza continues. In Oregon, Portland State University closed its campus yesterday after protesters took over a library building. At UCLA in Los Angeles, police in riot gear arrived on campus early this morning because of clashes overnight between rival protest groups. And one other very different development yesterday - students at Brown University in Rhode Island agreed to end their protest. They took that step after school officials said they'll hold a vote next October on possible divestment from Israel.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's Brian Mann, Brian. Thank you.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.