Students at Columbia Occupy Building—Echoing Protests of the Past

The “autonomous protesters” said they will not leave until university administrators meet their demands for divestment from Israel, financial transparency, and amnesty for pro-Palestinian protesters.

Left: A photo of Students for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) takeover of Hamilton Hall in 1968. Right: A photo of “autonomous” protesters associated with the Gaza Solidarity Encampment who took over Hamilton Hall early in the morning of April 30, 2024.Bev Grant/Getty; Alex Kent/Getty

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Early Tuesday morning, Columbia student protesters took over a building on campus, pledging not to leave until their demands—for the university to divest from Israel, financial transparency from Columbia’s endowment, and amnesty for pro-Palestinian protesters—are met. 

The group of “autonomous protesters” took over Hamilton Hall, an academic building on the Morningside Heights campus, shortly after midnight, according to a media advisory from Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the group that organized the Gaza Solidarity Encampment over the past few weeks. The protesters said they “reclaimed” the building as Hind’s Hall, in honor of a Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl killed in January as part of Israel’s campaign in Gaza. 

“As we inch toward Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah, which now houses over 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, it is more urgent than ever to fight Columbia’s contributions to the ongoing murder, maiming, and forced starvation of millions of Palestinians,” protesters added in their statement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israeli forces “will enter Rafah…with or without a deal.” Within the past 48 hours, Israeli airstrikes in Rafah killed at least 22 people, including five children, one of whom was five days old, the Associated Press reports

The group occupying Hamilton Hall reportedly entered the building around 12:30 a.m., sealing the building shut within minutes, according to the student newspaper, the Columbia Daily Spectator. Video from the scene posted on social media seems to show that, at one point, protesters inside the building broke the window on a door in order to lock it from the outside. 

The student newspaper reports that two students tried to block the barricade, shouting: “You don’t have a right to tear down our university.” The students reportedly left within an hour. At that point, protesters blocked the door with metal tables and trash cans, the Spectator reports. After students got inside, a crowd gathered outside the building, while a protester shouted from one of the balconies: “This building is liberated in honor of Hind, the six-year-old Palestinian child, murdered in Gaza by the Israelis.” 

Police arrived outside campus around 12:45 a.m., and told the Spectator they wouldn’t enter unless someone got hurt. A police spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.

Around 1:30 a.m., the protesters unfurled banners from the building, reading “Hind’s Hall,” “Intifada,” “Liberation Education,” “Student Intifada,” and “Gaza Calls, Columbia Falls,” according to the Spectator

The latest event echoes the protests of 1968, when Columbia students took over campus buildings—including Hamilton Hall—for a week to protest the Vietnam War, racism, and the university’s proposal to further expand throughout the neighborhood. (Police eventually arrested more than 700 people.) The protesters who occupied the building last night invoked that protest and others, in the school’s history, saying: “This escalation represents the next generation of the 1968, 1985, and 1992 student movements which Columbia once repressed yet celebrates today.” 

A spokesperson for Columbia said in a statement early Tuesday that the school has locked down access to campus except for students who live in campus housing and essential workers. “The safety of every single member of this community is paramount,” spokesperson Ben Chang said in a statement. 

Early Tuesday afternoon, Chang added that occupiers of Hamilton Hall will face expulsion, and that participants in the encampment face suspension as well as being ineligible to graduate. (On Monday, administrators said participants had to clear the encampment by 2 p.m. or risk suspension, that negotiations with student organizers had ended, and that they would not divest the university’s holdings from Israel.) “This is about responding to the actions of the protesters, not their cause,” Chang’s statement added. NYPD Chief Jeffrey Maddrey said at an unrelated press conference Tuesday morning that “the NYPD is always ready, but we will not be going onto Columbia’s property without a specific request from them or not unless there is imminent danger.”

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told Bloomberg that President Joe Biden thinks Columbia students occupying the building are taking “the wrong approach.” 

“You can’t be disrupting the educational pursuits of your fellow students…taking over a building by force is unacceptable,” Kirby said. 

Student protesters have also occupied buildings at other campuses, including Portland State, where they’ve taken over a library, and California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, where students were occupying an administration building before 25 were arrested this morning, according to reports. 

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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