Columbia’s Violence Against Protesters Has a Long History

Columbia’s Violence Against Protesters Has a Long History

Columbia’s Violence Against Protesters Has a Long History

An overlooked history of selective policing at Columbia has undermined the safety of those within as well as beyond campus walls.


Early morning on Tuesday, April 30, Columbia University students protesting the university’s involvement in the ongoing genocide in Palestine occupied Hamilton Hall, a historic building on campus that has been the site of several student occupations throughout the late twentieth century. Renaming the building Hind’s Hall—after Hind Rajab, the six-year-old Palestinian girl killed by the Israeli military—student protesters demanded university president Minouche Shafik to divest from Israel, disclose the list of university investments, and guarantee them amnesty. Shafik’s response came at night, when hundreds of NYPD officers, trucks, and vans lined up Broadway and Amsterdam Avenues to arrest students. Her response came with riot shields, batons, tasers, zip ties—and with guns drawn. It came without any sense of justice, and without the secure presence of journalists and legal observers, many of whom were threatened with arrest if not approved beforehand by the university or the NYPD. 

Shafik’s brutal response came just twelve days after she had called on the NYPD in riot gear to arrest 108 student protesters for creating an encampment on the university’s South Lawn East, which had sparked similar encampments across the country and the globe—at Yale, UT Austin, CUNY, USC, Gallaudet, MIT, Indiana, UCLA, University of Tokyo, University of Sydney, and more. She had described tents of students as posing “a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University.” University administrators in dozens of campuses followed Shafik’s lead, describing their own students as dangerous and calling in the police to arrest them without any dialogue. 

Although the Columbia president’s decision to call in the NYPD twice in one month may appear extraordinary, it is part of a long history of violence at the university against minority students, student activists, and Harlem residents. An overlooked history of selective policing at Columbia has primarily targeted these three populations, undermining the safety of those within as well as beyond campus walls. Meanwhile, incidents of violence against Black students, Jewish students, gay students, anti-fascists and others have gone unaddressed.

In the spring of 1924, for instance, Frederick W. Wells, one of the first Black students at Columbia Law School, disenrolled and transferred out after dozens of men in white hooded robes burned a seven-foot wooden cross on South Field, what is now the university lawns, to protest his presence in a campus dormitory. The night when the hooded men burned the cross, some students in the dormitory banged on Wells’ door to warn him of possible danger, while other students ran through the halls of the dorm screaming death threats like “Put the n–gger out,” and “Down with the n–gro.” 

Although Wells received messages of support from the NAACP and Harlem residents after the cross burning, that month he also received two death threats allegedly signed by the Ku Klux Klan. The year before, administrators had witnessed alumni parading on campus in Klan robes. Yet the University failed to take any meaningful action, from informing Black students of the possible Klan violence on-campus to revoking the alumni privileges of the Klan members. Despite the many death threats against Wells, university authorities determined there was “no additional trouble in connection with the matter.” The administration not only failed to identify the perpetrators of the hate crime, they refused to pursue it as a problem of safety. 

Throughout the early twentieth century, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, there were frequent incidents in which white students displayed swastikas on campus, yet Columbia administrators failed to seek robust means of safeguarding Jewish students or other minority students. On the contrary, instead of addressing the students proudly displaying swastikas, the university administration often restricted the activities of student activists targeted by swastikas, many of whom were Jewish women from Barnard College or professional schools of the university.  

The university has also shown itself to be hostile to organized protests. On April 15, 1935, when 3,500 Columbia University students and faculty walked out of classes together as part of the National Student Strike Against War organized by the National Student League, university administrators prevented the multi-school coalition from gathering in the most prominent public space on-campus. University president Nicholas Murray Butler, who had described the strike as “quite futile,” denied students from demonstrating on the steps of Low Library. As the coalition convened in the gymnasium instead, fascist students replaced the official university flag with a crudely drawn Nazi flag;  they put a United States flag over a blue banner put up by activists that read “strike”. According to an article in the Columbia Daily Spectator, the student newspaper, a student who was identified as a one of the possible culprits had impersonated Hitler during the strike and proudly fastened a swastika onto the door of his dorm room without facing any disciplinary meeting or investigation.

The university’s failures in ensuring the safety of student activists became even harder to ignore a few months later. On October 18, 1935,  Jules Perlstein, a college leader part of the Columbia Anti-War League and the National Student League, led a protest against Italian fascism just a few feet away from Casa Italiana, the university building on Amsterdam Avenue constructed with support from fascists in Italy, including Mussolini himself. Perlstein spoke to a small group of Columbia students protesting its connections to the Italian government as well as university president Butler’s close relations with fascist leaders. The fact that Butler had stayed with Mussolini in 1927 during his trip to Rome was no secret. Students had also not forgotten Butler’s invitation to Hans Luther, the Nazi ambassador to the U.S., to lecture on Columbia’s campus in 1933, despite their protests. 

With this in mind, Perlstein denounced the Italian invasion of Ethiopia that began on October 3, 1935. She called on her classmates to condemn the “dangers to peace” posed by “Mussolini’s African venture.” 

Fascist counter-protesters quickly outnumbered the students on the northeast corner of 117th Street, many of whom encircled Perlstein. According to the Spectator, one counter-protester lunged toward Perlstein and attempted to choke her, while another pulled out “a blackjack”—a heavy leather pouch filled with lead or a steel rod—to club Perlstein’s head, which a classmate nearby blocked just in time. A police sergeant quelled the conflict, but, the article notes, he feigned ignorance when a reporter asked him if he saw someone pull out a blackjack, the possession of which was a criminal offense. The sergeant responded: “You’re seeing things…It was only a handkerchief he took outta his pocket. Better see your Optometrist.” Although the Nazi flag had been flown on-campus just months before, the university again failed to prevent fascists from threatening students. 

On May 9, 1967, what campus police described as “two fleet of foot students” burned a second wooden cross, this time nine-foot-tall, on the university’s South Field. Captain A. Adam De Nisco, head of the university security force, dismissed the cross burning as a “student prank.” The crime of intimidation was most likely directed toward the Student Homophile League, the first gay student organization in the country, considering it had sent a press release to a number of large national and international news publications five days prior. The news of the formation of the student group traveled fast and drew swift censure from administrators as being reckless and dangerous. 

Dean David B. Truman of Columbia College criticized the League for its press release and stressed they should have at the very least kept the university’s decision to themselves. Noting it “sure as hell won’t help [them],” Truman said that “My personal view is that [the group] is a quite unnecessary thing.” Anthony Philip, the director of the university’s counseling services, decried that the social organization of gay students posed a “serious danger to students with deep emotional problems who are still ‘uncommitted’ to a homosexual or heterosexual orientation.” 

Perhaps the clearest antecedent to the recent police violence at Columbia occurred in 1968, amid mass student demonstrations protesting the university’s connections to the Vietnam War as well as its role in gentrifying Harlem. On April 23, 1968, students began occupying Hamilton Hall, home to the college dean’s office. The occupation quickly spread to four buildings, drawing the attention of a nation that had witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. just three weeks prior.  

Then on April 30, 1968, one week after the student protesters began occupying campus buildings, Columbia administrators called in more than 1,000 police officers and arrested over 700 student activists, injuring a 100 or so in the process. The administration’s message to the arrested students was clear: protesting war would be met with violent repression. It was a stunning display of the administration’s willingness to criminalize and arrest its own students. It was also a warning to the university of what the repercussions would be when it tried to produce the illusion of public safety through police repression.

Over the decades, Columbia has sought to increase police presence in Harlem as well. In 1936, Columbia administrators and the leadership of St. Luke’s Hospital filed a joint appeal calling for the expansion of policing in Harlem, after a graduate student was attacked by two assailants in Morningside Park. 

In 1972, three teens robbed and murdered a professor of international law at Columbia Law School. After that incident, university President William McGill, acutely aware of what had happened in 1968, did not call for increased policing in Harlem. In this case, faculty and city newspapers helped produce the illusion that Harlem was uniquely dangerous and policing was the answer. Economics professor Harold Barger responded to the president’s decision by stressing that the lack of security “could slowly or rapidly kill the university,” arguing that a tenured professor’s death rendered Columbia unattractive for prospective instructors. Furthermore, Barger noted that for the sake of protecting university members, he supported “asking the police commissioner to deputize all tenured faculty.” The New York Times published an editorial about the murder that described Harlem and its residents as “a sidewalk jungle” and its “creatures.” The New York Daily News suggested “the old reliable electric chair” to be brought against people committing crimes in the area. 

Unlike the assault of the graduate student or the murder of the law professor, however, violent crimes against non-affiliates in and around Columbia’s campus have prompted little to no response from the university and the police. Most notoriously, in 1984, two separate murders created a buzz on campus for a couple semesters and resulted in no significant changes to security measures.  

In January of 1984, three college students had found a corpse of a Black man rolled up in a rug outside of Carman Hall, an undergraduate dormitory. Police left the case unresolved for months. In July of the same year, when a superintendent of a Columbia-owned property discovered a corpse of another Black man wrapped in Hefty trash bags, NYPD stated they were still without leads on the January murder. Detectives investigating the July murder at the time, without much evidence, said that both homicides likely occurred “far from the Columbia community,” despite the fact that they could not rule out the “possibility that [the body] was carried by several people from the other side of Morningside Park.” Where the dead man was from mattered little for the detectives whose priorities lay with those within the Columbia University community, despite the possibility that the unsolved murders could have occurred within their jurisdiction. 

Columbia’s record of violence against protesters continued into the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In 1985, when five students demanded that the university divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa, the university obtained a court order allowing it to arrest and remove the hunger strikers. It did exactly that without hesitation. In 1987, the university filed criminal trespass charges against students and alumni who entered a dormitory to take down a confederate flag from a first-year student’s window.  In 1996, when students occupied campus buildings again and demanded the creation of a Department of Ethnic Studies, the administration called in the police and arrested 23 students blockading Low Library. The occupation led to the creation of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in 1999 under the leadership of the historian Gary Okihirio. 

Meanwhile, the university’s close collaboration with the NYPD in Harlem has continued. On December 11, 2019, 18-year-old Barnard College student Tessa Majors was murdered in an attempted robbery by three middle school students from Harlem in Morningside Park. Immediately after the murder of Majors, upon the request of university administrators, the 26th NYPD precinct increased the number of patrolling officers and their shifts in West Harlem. According to the January 8, 2020 meeting minutes of Manhattan Community Board 9—which oversees Morningside Park—new security booths, floodlights, and a substation of the NYPD in the park perimeter were added within just weeks of the murder. Such responses were seldom, if ever, mobilized in cases involving Harlem residents. 

On January 19, 2024, just three months ago, student protesters for Palestine at Columbia suffered chemical attacks by two Israeli students, which did not result in an investigation by Columbia Public Safety, the private police of the University, until three days later. The university’s belated response, yet again, signaled its willingness to ignore acts of violence committed against some people, namely minority students, student protesters, and Harlemites. 

As president Shafik calls on the NYPD to remain at Columbia, it is vital to consider the long history of the university’s hostility to peaceful protest and its failures to protect minority students. As university administrators turn to militarized policing, we must be vigilant about what “public safety” really means, and whether police involvement promotes that. In the midst of anti-Palestinian hate and false accusations of danger, we must stand with the people of Palestine, their many allies, and the students rising up for their freedom. Together, we must stand against militarized violence everywhere—from Columbia and Harlem to Gaza and Palestine.

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