Custodian Mario Torres confronts protesters in Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, on April 30, 2024. (Photo by Alex Kent/Getty Images)

Dropping Charges Against Columbia Protesters Is ‘Wrong,’ Says Janitor

‘You should be found guilty,’ Lester Wilson told The Free Press. ‘We as the workers, y’all violated us.’

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Nearly all of the Columbia students who were arrested a little over a month ago for breaking into and occupying Hamilton Hall had their charges dismissed on Thursday afternoon by the Manhattan district attorney.

The Free Press was in the courtroom as more than seventy supporters of the protesters—students, faculty members, and others donning keffiyehs, masks, and custom-made “Hind’s Hall” crop tops—filed in.

“We were unable to establish that these defendants caused property damage or bodily harm,” Assistant District Attorney Stephen Millan told the judge before he moved to drop the charges against thirty Columbia students and faculty who were arrested and charged after violently taking over Hamilton Hall on the evening of April 30 with hammers and zip ties.

They each were facing at least one charge of criminal trespass—a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine. After less than thirty minutes inside the courtroom, they were walking out scot-free.

One person baffled by the decision was Lester Wilson, one of the janitors inside Hamilton Hall that night, who previously told The Free Press he thought he “could have been killed in there.” He called the prosecutor’s decision to dismiss the cases “wrong.” 

“If they got dismissed and no charges were being brought, I feel it’s wrong, I feel it’s wrong, I feel it’s wrong,” he said. “Somebody should be charged. Somebody should be held accountable. I’m not saying jail time, but not dismissed. You should be found guilty.” 

“We as the workers, y’all violated us,” he added. “Y’all really violated us, keeping us in that building, by taking over that building, you affected all our lives.”

Some fourteen additional protesters, who had no affiliation with Columbia at the time of arrest, also had a hearing for their charges on Thursday. James Carlson, a 41-year-old heir to millions who the NYPD previously called a “long-time anarchist,” was one of them. Carlson—who was captured in a now-viral photograph getting in a physical altercation with Columbia janitor Mario Torres the night of the break-in—was arrested alongside the student protesters on April 30. He was charged with criminal trespass, criminal mischief, and arson—the last charge stemming from an incident a week before, in which he allegedly lit an Israeli flag on fire. As the prosecutor discussed Carlson’s arson incident with the judge, the keffiyeh-clad crowd whispered and laughed, before being scolded to be quiet by a court officer. 

Carlson declined to take a plea deal of community service for his trespassing charge. The thirteen other people who weren’t affiliated with the university were also offered dismissals pending good behavior; they also refused. Earlier in the day, a coalition called Columbia University Apartheid Divest released a statement justifying their decision, claiming the deals were “the state’s attempts to divide the movement along the lines of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ protest.” Their cases may now move to trial. 

Mario Torres told The Free Press he was “upset” to hear about the lenient treatment of Carlson’s case and others but did not want to comment further. 

Earlier this month, the prosecutor’s office also dismissed the cases of at least seven protesters who occupied a building at CUNY, some of whom faced felony charges of burglary and misdemeanor charges of obstructing government administration. 

In a press conference organized by protesters outside the courthouse, where just a few weeks ago former president Donald Trump was found guilty of thirty-four felony counts, one individual who identified himself as “Mickey Mouse” told reporters: “Just as we refuse to condemn the Palestinian resistance, we refuse to condemn direct action in the United States.” 

“We stand in full support of any and all efforts to liberate oppressed people everywhere, by any means necessary,” he added.

Francesca Block is a reporter for The Free Press. Read her exclusive interview, “Columbia Custodian Trapped by ‘Angry Mob’ Speaks Out,” and follow her on X @FrancescaABlock

Jonas Du is an intern at The Free Press. Follow him on X @jonasydu.

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