Activism / May 3, 2024

Eric Adams Is the Lying Face of the Campus Crackdown

New York’s mayor is the right man for the job of standing up for the indefensible.

Jeet Heer
Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, speaks at a press conference on February 8, 2024. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

Journalism, a trade where the need to maintain access often requires euphemism, is rich in evasive language to describe people like Eric Adams: dissimulator, equivocator, teller of tall tales, prevaricator, fabulist, among many others. But to be perfectly frank—something that Adams is incapable of—the New York mayor is a bald-faced liar. He is willing to say anything to advance his immediate interest, with little or no regard for the truth. Adams doesn’t just tell the occasional fib. He lies on a legendary scale, comparable to Baron Munchausen, the Wizard of Oz, or Pinocchio. Adams is second only to Donald Trump in his wanton mendacity. In a very entertaining 2023 profile of Adams for The New Yorker, Ian Parker made clear just how essential lying is to Adams’s persona, to the point that Adams will tell lies denying the lies he had previously told.

Adams regularly called himself a vegan. When Politico reported in 2022 that he ate fish, Adams, according to Parker, “initially denied this” and then “he denied to me, untruthfully, that he’d ever claimed to be a vegan.” Later, Adams said, “If I see a piece of chicken, I’m going to nibble on it.”

In 2021, Adams said he had never boxed before. Two years later, he boasted that he often boxed when younger, doing well in the gym but quickly getting knocked out in the ring. Adams has claimed he was born in Alabama (which is where his mom was born, he himself entering the world in a Park Slope hospital). He claimed his father sometimes took him to see Malcolm X speak—virtually impossible, since the civil rights leader was assassinated when Adams was 4. Adams has boasted, “When I played football for Bayside High School, we used to win championships all the time.” He also denied to Parker ever playing football for Bayside.

Adams’s deceptions have even required the fabrication of evidence—as Parker relates:

Last year, after the murder of two police officers in Harlem, Adams made a speech in which he described having long carried, in his wallet, a small photograph of a police-officer friend who was murdered in 1987. A week later, Adams showed this crumpled keepsake to journalists. The Times recently reported that, in the days following the speech, City Hall aides had manufactured the wallet photograph by downloading an image from the Internet, then staining a print with coffee, to make it look old.

One thing that Adams does not lie about, it seems, is his love of Israel. Of course, it’s not unknown for New York politicians to work up an expedient enthusiasm for the Jewish state. But Adams seemed genuine when he said he planned to retire in Israel. Asked where, he said “the Golan Heights” (which, to be sure, is actually Syrian territory occupied by Israel).

All the various strands of Adams’s political personality—his Zionism, his pro-cop stance, and his habit of lying—came together this week when he became the public face of the nationwide campus crackdown on pro-Palestinian activism. To be sure, this crackdown is supported by a dismayingly wide bipartisan consensus, headed by President Joe Biden. But Biden reserved his major pro-crackdown sentiment for a speech of less than four minutes, shameful but mercifully brief. By contrast, Adams has been rushing into the limelight to make arguments on behalf of a large sweep of Columbia University on Tuesday that led to more than 300 arrests.

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The campus crackdown, at both Columbia and schools across the nation, is indefensible. But when you are defending the indefensible, you need a spokesman like Adams, as prolific an inventor of fables as Scheherazade.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Adams offered this strange rationale for the crackdown: “There is a movement to radicalize young people, and I’m not going to wait until it’s done and all of a sudden acknowledge the existence of it. This is a global problem that young people are being influenced by those who are professionals at radicalizing our children, and I’m not going to allow that to happen as the mayor of the City of New York.”

This is a bizarre justification for a police action in a nation where free expression is constitutionally protected. After all, there is nothing illegal about “radicalizing” students, who are not, in any case, children. Adams is openly confessing to violating the First Amendment. The phrase “professionals” was much used by Adams and his administration, as was the even more nakedly authoritarian “outside agitators.” Even as he talked of “outside agitators” on Tuesday, Adams acknowledged that the concept had a disreputable past. The “outside agitator” trope was much used by racists in the Jim Crow South as a way to demonize the civil rights movement. It is, as Columbia historian Mae Ngai noted, a “bogeyman narrative.” But the toxic history of the phrase didn’t stop Adams from using it.

When Adams tried to specify who the outside agitators were, he repeatedly botched the facts. As Nia Prater of New York notes:

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Adams cited one woman, Nahla Al-Arian, whose husband he claimed was “convicted of terrorism.” But Al-Arian wasn’t on Columbia’s campus this week, and she told the AP that Adams had misstated her husband’s legal past. Another woman, Lisa Fithian, a longtime activist who has made appearances at Occupy Wall Street and many other protests, was seen instructing protesters on how to barricade a door outside Hamilton Hall the night it was first occupied. But Fithian, whom the NYPD describes as a “confirmed professional agitator,” told the New York Times that she wasn’t on campus Tuesday evening when the arrests were made.

Finally, there was the lie the Adams administration advanced about the terrorist bicycle chain. On Wednesday, Deputy Commissioner Tarik Sheppard was allowed to go on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to hold up a chain and claim, “This is not what students bring to school. This is what professionals bring to campuses and universities.” What Sheppard was holding up was a common chain bicycle lock. As The New York Times’ Eric Toler noted, “This bike lock is/was available for sale on campus via Columbia’s Public Safety department.”

The current crackdown is predicated on the idea that pro-Palestine protesters are violent and pose a unique threat to academic well-being. This is the core lie, and it is spread by both Adams and Biden. But the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, with much of the violence that has occurred coming from cops and pro-Israel counterprotesters—very notably at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The police violence can be seen in shocking videos such as one from Dartmouth, where the police threw to the ground professor Annelise Orleck, who is the former head of the Jewish studies program at Dartmouth and 65 years old.

A report by Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a think tank that tracks conflict, concluded: “While some notable violent clashes have recently taken place, such as on the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus, where demonstrators and counter-demonstrators fought at a student encampment overnight on 30 April, the overwhelming majority—99%—have remained peaceful.”

The violence at UCLA is instructive. The pro-Israel counterprotesters were organized by a group partly funded by Jessica Seinfeld (wife of the comedian Jerry Seinfeld). Many of the hired protesters seem to have been Iranian monarchists—a group that tends to be pro-Israel because of the old alliance between the deposed shah of Iran and Israel.

As both the Los Angeles Times and The Forward have reported, the pro-Israel counterprotesters were extremely violent. According to the LA Times:

Four student journalists who work for the UCLA Daily Bruin were attacked shortly before 3:30 am. Wednesday by Pro-Israel counterprotesters during a campus demonstration that turned violent.

Daily Bruin news editor Catherine Hamilton, 21, told The Times she recognized one of the counterprotesters as someone who had previously verbally harassed her and taken pictures of her press badge. The individual instructed the group to encircle the student journalists, she said, before they sprayed the four with mace or pepper spray, flashed lights in their faces and chanted Hamilton’s name.

As she tried to break free, Hamilton said, she was punched repeatedly in the chest and upper abdomen; another student journalist was pushed to the ground and beaten and kicked for nearly a minute. The attack was first reported in the Daily Bruin.

The pro-Israel counterprotest is complex, since it has elements of both an organic movement and an AstroTurf campaign. Surely the logic behind it is to turn a peaceful protest violent in order to bring in the police—which is exactly what has happened. It is notable that this violent pro-Israel agitation has not received any widespread political criticism.

As the police intervene, the chances of real violence rapidly increase. On Tuesday night, the New York Police Department fired a gun in Hamilton Hall at Columbia University. This event is still mysterious, since the NYPD has been evasive about the incident, which seems to have been an accident. But even a misfire can lead to real death. The police escalation is making campuses much less safe.

As Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian rights notes, “What is happening in NYC between Adams and the Columbia admin reeks of scandal and cover-up to the high heaven. They made up a pretext and lied to initiate a police raid, trotted out a clown with a bike lock, then didn’t say anything about firing a weapon on campus.” Amid the current dangerous moment, the American political elite desperately needs a shameless liar. Eric Adams is clearly the right man for this task.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the UCLA counter-protesters had been funded by billionaire Bill Ackman.  While Ackman did donate to a group at George Washington University that displayed video footage of October 7, and to fraternity brothers at the University of North Carolina who replaced a Palestinian flag with an American flag, he was not involved in funding the UCLA group, and we wish to correct the record.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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