OP-ED: To Fear a Protest: Columbia University’s Forceful Response to Peaceful and Legitimate Protest


    By Rachel Patterson | New York Amsterdam News

    Columbia has a long history of nurturing not just academics, but leaders, like former President Barack Obama and former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who used their education and influence to make an impact on the world. It is humbling to know that I am amongst the ranks of those charged with creating the next generation of these dynamic individuals. As a faculty member, my goals each semester are to help my students graduate and secure jobs by ensuring that they have good research and writing skills, underpinned by critical thinking, so that they know when and how to apply their talents.

    On April 17, as I got off the subway and prepared to walk through the college en route to watch my students give their final presentations of the semester, I was stopped by the makeshift security entrance. I was utterly confused. I’d never had to show my campus ID to walk across the lawn before as a student or faculty member. Unsettled, I proceeded toward my classroom.

    As I hurried through campus, I saw the protesters with their tents and signs; one read, “Liberated Zone” in bold red letters. I slowed down and smiled, proud that these students were taking action. After the presentations, on my way back through campus, I paused to hear the student protesters who were speaking to the attentive crowd. They told the crowd why they were there: To give a voice to the people in Palestine that are victims of a brutal genocide. The speakers noted that they would stay right there until the school divested financially from the genocide. That was powerful to me. These students were putting their academic careers and futures on the line, willing to camp out everyday on this lawn, to make sure that the university administration heard them. To make sure that the institution they pay to attend, that they trust to educate them, ends up on the right side of history. I was glad that they were taking a stand, being seen, and that they had a specific demand for the university. For a moment, I wished I could join them.

    I thought about the students, the protest, and the genocide in Palestine for my entire two-hour trip home. I sat there in a daze, sad and frustrated, and prayed for the thousands of Palestinians who face uncertain futures every day. As a person of faith, I was deeply frustrated because leaders always tell people to send thoughts and prayers in light of widespread tragedy, and yet more than 30,000 Palestinians have died, with more civilian deaths promised as this genocide presses on. It highlighted the fact that my prayers aren’t doing much. I felt hopeless. It reminded me of the times I felt compelled to express myself via protest in the past.

    Protesting makes you feel like you’re doing something—and you are. You are raising the public consciousness, educating people, and exposing the truth in a way that cannot be ignored. The news, social media, and on-the-ground accounts of the devastating brutality abroad are not enough to inform the public. Many Americans still don’t seem to understand the issue—that the Israeli state was born by violently and forcibly overtaking Palestinian lands and peoples, and over the last seven decades, millions of Palestinians have fled, while those who’ve stayed have been systematically marginalized, murdered, and starved.

    It is unfortunate how consistently academic institutions struggle with having an educated, critical, and capable student body. The very tools we hope the students use to secure jobs, become successful, and change the world, are the skills that they are applying to determine just how much the university is failing them. It is not surprising that Columbia students had the awareness and talent to discover the university’s financial ties to this particular genocide; and, given the legacy of leadership cultivated by the university, it is not surprising that some brave students took action.

    What did surprise me was the forceful and unprecedented response from university president Namet Shafik.

    Though the students assembled in peace—in a space designated for student protests—Shafik responded in full force with armed officers. Instead of being met with respect through civil conversation, they were publicly humiliated through actions intended to create shame and dissuade future protesters. Shafik prioritized her position of leadership over the wellbeing of young people, without consideration of the fact that these are students paying a hefty tuition and in turn relying on the university for shelter, food, and health insurance.

    True leaders come to the table prepared for discourse; cowards find something to hide behind. In an egregious display of weakness, the university affirmed that it feared the political views of its students. By arresting more than 100 peacefully assembled young adults, Columbia demonstrated just how vulnerable it is to the leaders they’ve created. What Shafik fails to understand is that silencing protest through force only validates the need for protest and inspires more civil unrest.

    As Shafik continues to stoke fear among our academic community, she must ask herself: What is the goal of the institution? How are her actions serving this goal? Is Columbia University not meant to develop critical thinkers and leaders who will change the world with their education? If Columbia genuinely intends to “advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and convey the products of its efforts to the world,” as the mission statement claims, suspending students mere weeks before graduation drastically misses the mark.

    While Shafik can set aside her morals for her high perch, it is heartening to know that the students cannot. They refuse to let the ivory towers of the Ivy League institution erode their ethics. They are willing to forgo their fancy degrees and contend with an armed police force in the name of justice. Ultimately, though my goal as a faculty member is to help my students graduate and get jobs; the true victory comes when they apply their skills and knowledge to real life problems and make an impact.

    Columbia University and Namet Shafik, it is time to be on the right side of history. The side that celebrates critical thought and application of knowledge. The side that seeks and speaks the truth. The side that puts ethics and human decency above pride and prestige. It is time to divest from financial ties to Israel.

    Since the encampment was established, the university has made no indication that they are willing to engage respectfully with the student protesters. Overnight on April 29, protesters entered Hamilton Hall and barricaded themselves inside. Hundreds of police officers in riot gear descended upon a few dozen students and physically removed them from campus the following day. Faculty were encouraged to hold their last classes and finals virtually, and a police presence remains on campus. Columbia has canceled commencement due to the unrest, and some protesters have continued demonstrating outside of the homes of board of trustee members. The Department of Education has since opened an investigation into Columbia University due to allegations of anti-Palestinian discrimination.

    Rachel Patterson is an alumnae of the Columbia School International and Public Affairs, and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University. Rachel is a climate justice advocate, a law student, and a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.

    Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BlackPressUSA.com or the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

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