A member of the Columbia maintenance crew confronts the demonstrators attempting to barricade themselves inside Hamilton Hall. (Photo by Alex Kent/Getty Images)

A Tale of Two Columbias

‘Half these kids don’t even know what they’re protesting for.’

Last night around 9 p.m., NYPD cops in riot gear descended on Columbia to, depending on your view of the matter, clear—or liberate?—Hamilton Hall, which had been occupied by protesters some 20 hours prior. 

The cops made quick work of the blockaded building: within two hours dozens of people were arrested. 

“For the individuals that are inside the Hamilton Hall building,” said the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry at a press conference, they’ll be “charged with burglary in the third degree, criminal mischief, and trespassing.” As for the protesters in outdoor encampment, he suggested they would be charged with “trespassing and disorderly conduct.”

Last night’s raid comes after a nearly two-week-long encampment, in which Columbia students and assorted others have chanted vigorously and danced interpretatively. They also painted their nails, made friendship bracelets, and made sure to have sufficient supplies of gluten-free bread. (Read Olivia Reingold’s report, “Camping Out at Columbia’s Communist Coachella.”)

Save some pesky details—like, say, the chants for globalizing the intifada (a call for globalizing a campaign of terror aimed at killing Jews); telling Jewish students to “go back to Poland”; and, in at least one case, assaulting a student—the encampment was just kids being kids. Indeed, if you asked the likes of Ilhan Omar and AOC, both of whom made pilgrimages, these students explicitly cheering for Hamas weren’t pro-war at all—they were standing against genocide and for liberation.

That position became less tenable after protesters smashed windows with a hammer, occupied Hamilton Hall, and started fighting with Columbia employees.

A now-viral photograph (above) shows one of the college’s lowest paid workers—a janitor making around $19 an hour—fighting back against a member of the mob. Contrast that with this video, in which one of the protest leaders demands “humanitarian aid”—i.e., snacks—for those who’ve laid siege to the building.

It was a tale of two Columbias.

The janitor captured in the photograph on Monday night still has not been identified. But yesterday, two members of Columbia’s maintenance crew said the man should sue the college.

“Half these kids don’t even know what they’re protesting for, they just want to be part of the fad,” one janitor, who did not want to be identified, told The Free Press. “I would fucking sue if I was him.”

Another maintenance worker with a 19-year-old daughter in college said, “If I were a parent of one of the graduating seniors, I would say fuck this, I want my money back.” Columbia’s tuition ranges from $50,000 a year for graduate students to $90,000 a year for undergrads. 

Meanwhile, a PhD student named Johannah King-Slutzky spoke to the press about students’ demands, which included catering. When a reporter asked her, “Why should the university be obligated to provide food to people who have taken over a building?” King-Slutzky replied, “First of all, we’re saying they are obligated to provide food to students who pay for a meal plan here.” Which is sort of like saying that if a restaurant can’t deny you service, the chef is obliged to come cook in your apartment—except you’ve stormed the chef’s apartment, and now you want him to cook you dinner there. 

“I guess it’s ultimately a question of what kind of a community and obligation Columbia has to its students,” King-Slutzky reflects. “Do you want students to die of dehydration and starvation or get severely ill even if they disagree with you?” So like, is it possible that they could get just a simple glass of water? With three lemons? And a Caesar salad with dressing on the side? Thankssomuch! 

King-Slutzky, whose thesis is on “theories of the imagination and poetry as interpreted through a Marxian lens” and the “fantasies of limitless energy in the transatlantic Romantic imagination from 1760–1860,” and whose fantasies are indeed limitless, goes on: “It’s crazy to say because we’re on an Ivy League campus, but this is like basic humanitarian aid we’re asking for.” In another video, she calls on members of the public to “hold Columbia accountable for any disproportionate response to students’ actions.” 

You’d think with all this talk of proportionality and humanitarian aid that she’d be discussing the war in Gaza. But she means the war in Hamilton Hall. In Manhattan. 

Meanwhile, two Columbia students captured footage of the late-night break-in for The Free Press, which you can watch here:

Their video captured professional protester Lisa Fithian, 63—a later-in-life learner?—directing the barricade. Fithian, it turns out, is a “protest consultant” paid by union and activist groups to teach their members tactics for taking over the streets. Known as “Professor Occupy,” she’s been arrested between 80–100 times and was seen on Monday instructing protesters how to block doors and also calling two Jewish students, who tried to intervene, “assholes.” 

While the mob that broke in were masked, a number of them were visibly older than the students. Perhaps some of these more experienced activists smuggled in some wraps before the paddy wagon arrived. 

Additional reporting from Francesca Block

For further reading:

Where does free speech end and law-breaking begin? Constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro explains

We also found University of Chicago president Paul Alivisatos’s letter on protests and encampments at his school to be an excellent example of that distinction in action.

Suzy Weiss is a reporter at The Free Press. Follow her on X @SnoozyWeiss.

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