Activism / StudentNation / April 30, 2024

Why Students at Columbia University Are Occupying Hamilton Hall

Pro-Palestine students have taken over the same building that anti-Vietnam War and anti-gentrification protesters occupied in 1968.

Lara-Nour Walton
Columbia University Hamilton Hall Occupation

Demonstrators from the pro-Palestine encampment on Columbia’s Campus show a banner as they barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall.

(Alex Kent / Getty)

On April 29—nearly two weeks after the initial Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia—University President Minouche Shafik released a statement saying that the school “will not divest from Israel.”

Organizers started negotiations with administration after setting up their encampment. But when the university announced that it would evict and suspend students staying in the encampment after 2 pm on April 29, organizing coalition Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) said that they had frozen talks until the university “comes to the table in good faith.”

The school was “toying with us,” said one organizer, whose name is withheld to protect him from potential retaliation. “Nothing concrete came out; they barely budged on anything,” he said. But the students decided to keep fighting. “What is there that we can do to escalate—to say we mean business?’”

On April 30, students occupied legendary Hamilton Hall—the same building that anti–Vietnam War and anti-gentrification protesters took over in 1968. Dozens have shuttered themselves in the hall until, as one protester with a bullhorn shouted from the occupied balcony, “Columbia meets every one of our demands.” The administration has since announced a complete lockdown of Columbia, with only students living on campus and “employees who provide essential services to campus buildings, labs and residential student life” permitted entry.

Current Issue

Cover of June 2024 Issue

The action at Hamilton Hall—which activists are calling “Hind’s Hall”—began at around 12:30 am. Students, many wearing keffiyehs, jogged over from different points on campus and streamed into the hall. An organizer announced that the building had been liberated in honor of Hind Rajab, “a 6-year-old Palestinian child—murdered in Gaza by the Israeli Occupation Forces funded by Columbia University.”

Those inside stacked wooden chairs to secure the internal entrance of Hamilton. Meanwhile, picketers sealed doors with metal picnic tables, trash cans, and planters. This action drew attention from at least two Columbia students, who infiltrated the picket and attempted to physically block the placement of a table at one of the entrances. “This is mob rule; this is despotism!” A friend of the counterprotesters came to “de-escalate” by leading them away from the entrance. After they left, protesters resumed barricading the door, while more students began gathering in front of John Jay Hall to watch. Some—wearing heels and floor length gowns—had just left a Theta sorority formal. Others emerged in pajama pants from their dorms.

Inside Hamilton Hall, protesters used copies of the Columbia Daily Spectator to cover the ground-level windows and hinder visibility to outsiders. Around 1:30 am, the crowd erupted into cheers as a Palestinian flag was unfurled from a third-floor window.

After the occupation was complete, CUAD posted a press release on X, formerly Twitter, that identified those inside Hamilton as an “autonomous group” who represent the continuation of the university’s long history of student activism “which Columbia once repressed, but now celebrates.”

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

“Young people are realizing [that they] are able to follow the suffering of other people and turn that into something generative—refusing the restriction on humanity,” said Layal, a student organizer. “This is not a space of violence or destruction. There’s nothing that’s being reduced. It’s only generative. My hope is that people on the outside can try to understand that instead of aligning themselves with structures that are so war-making, so geared towards genocide, death, and destruction.”

By 3 am, the steps of the sundial were covered by dozens of seated demonstrators who listened as protest leaders spoke into a microphone. “Despite our unimaginable loss and immense grief at this moment, we must not abandon hope,” one student said. “The occupier wants us to feel hopeless. They want us to believe that Gaza is unattainable—a totally lost cause. Make no mistake. This is a sad attempt to quell our increasingly powerful movement for liberation.”

“We talked to the administration for over one week and they gave us nothing,” another student protester said, as the crowd cried “shame!”

On April 29, students at Barnard College had passed a referendum with 91 percent of voters favoring divestment, after a similar referendum passed at Columbia College last week in which 76 percent of students voted yes to divest. “We did not have to take a building—people could have gone to sleep. We could have had a restful end to the semester, but Columbia refused to listen to the demands of its students,” she said. “Hundreds of us were outside tonight. Hundreds of us are in support of Palestinian Liberation, but the administration still claims that there is no consensus.”

“The movement here at Columbia has inaugurated something new across the country,” said the last speaker to stand before the sundial. The crackdown by the administration and the NYPD on Columbia’s first encampment had a significant domino effect—inspiring dozens of similar campus occupations nationwide. “Tonight the students at Columbia have led the way once again.”

“There’s much hardship in Gaza right now,” he told the crowd as a banner reading “Liberation Education” unraveled on the West side of Hamilton Hall. “But our steadfastness is nothing compared to the steadfastness that is required to resist the ongoing genocide. So,” he said, pausing to catch his breath, “let’s all tap into that collective feeling and be ready to…free, free Palestine.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.

Onwards,

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Lara-Nour Walton

Lara-Nour Walton is a journalist based in New York. She is currently pursuing a BA in history at Columbia University.

More from The Nation

Juneteenth

Juneteenth Juneteenth

Juneteenth (June 19) commemorated the abolition of slavery in the United States, it became a national holiday on June 17, 2021.

OppArt / Andrea Arroyo

The Rev. James Lawson speaks from the pulpit of the First AME Church during an event in solidarity with union workers in Wisconsin on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.

James Lawson Led the Faith-Based Struggle Against Plantation Capitalism James Lawson Led the Faith-Based Struggle Against Plantation Capitalism

The civil rights icon preached that God believed “that people should be fed, that people should have access to life, that people should be treated equally and justly.”

John Nichols

Contextual Bodies

Contextual Bodies Contextual Bodies

Self-portraits juxtaposed on images sourced from the criminology records of Cuba aim to dismantle entrenched stereotypes and societal biases tethered to black masculinity and crimi...

OppArt / Esteban Jiménez Guerra

University of California Worker strike

Why University of California Workers Stopped Their Historic Strike Why University of California Workers Stopped Their Historic Strike

Nearly 80 percent of participating union members voted in support of the strike on May 1, citing the repression of pro-Palestine protesters at UCLA, UCSD, and UCI.

StudentNation / Amber X. Chen and Ella Carter-Klauschie

Lawson with microphone

The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., 1928–2024 The Rev. James M. Lawson Jr., 1928–2024

The “greatest teacher of nonviolence in America” was a mentor to generations of activists, from Martin Luther King Jr. to today’s union organizers and immigrant rights campaigners...

Obituary / Peter Dreier

RFK Jr.

RFK Jr. RFK Jr.

In a nutshell.

OppArt / Steve Brodner