(Photos by Alex Kent, Andrew Harnik, and John Shearer via Getty Images)

Exclusive: Columbia Custodian Trapped by ‘Angry Mob’ Speaks Out

“We don’t expect to go to work and get swarmed.” Plus: bird flu, the Met Gala, and much more.

On today’s Front Page: Donald G. McNeil Jr. on the bird flu epidemic; Suzy Weiss on the Met Gala; our first letters page; and much more. 

But first: a Free Press exclusive.

Remember this viral photograph from Columbia last week of the janitor and the protester? Yesterday, we learned that the activist in the picture is a 40-year-old trust fund kid and self-described anarchist. He owns a Brooklyn brownstone worth $2.3 million.

(Alex Kent via Getty Images)

But what about the other man in the image? The one who was apparently left alone to defend the building? Francesca Block tracked down Columbia facilities worker Mario Torres. Torres has not been back to work since the events of that evening. He told Block he feels unsafe on campus, that the university failed him, and that he is scared of what might come next. “Is Columbia going to retaliate and find a reason to fire me?”

Watch Francesca’s full interview with Mario Torres here.

I suspect I am not alone in suffering from such a severe case of Covid fatigue that I ignore almost any headline that contains words like “virus” or “pandemic.” But when it comes to the bird flu outbreak that has made it into America’s dairy herds, that is apparently a mistake, says Donald G. McNeil Jr.

Donald was a longtime science reporter for The New York Times and has just published a book on pandemics, The Wisdom of Plagues: Lessons from 25 Years of Covering Pandemics. Writing for The Free Press, he argues that the epidemic warrants more attention, and that the CDC and dairy industry should be doing much more to make sure our milk supply is safe. 

Here’s Donald:

The American dairy industry is fighting a major epidemic of H5N1 avian flu right now. Cattle herds in at least eight states are infected, and 20 percent of a national sampling of milk showed fragments of the virus. Meanwhile, the public has been told to stay calm, our milk supply is safe, and nothing serious is amiss. 

But we can’t be sure this is true.

Consider a recent, terrifying study on the fate of cats at a Texas dairy farm. Last week, Iowa State University researchers described what happened to 24 felines who drank raw milk and colostrum from cows teeming with the virus. They fell ill a day later, suffered “copious oculonasal discharge,” lost control of their limbs, walked in circles, became lethargic, and went blind. More than half died. 

Cats are not humans—any more than canaries are coal miners—but the virus clearly went straight to their brains and killed them. That’s an ominous sign. Continue reading.

  1. Israel began its Rafah offensive Monday after Hamas said it had accepted a cease-fire deal. But Hamas had only agreed to an Egyptian and Qatari proposal, and one that the Israeli prime minister’s office said was “far” from meeting Israel’s “essential requirements.” (Times of Israel)

  2. A U.S. soldier was detained in Russia last Thursday, according to a U.S. official. The source told ABC News that the soldier was a staff sergeant who has been stationed in South Korea, traveled to Russia on his own, and is being held on charges of criminal misconduct. (ABC

  3. Biden’s “quiet comeback” may be over, says Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen. Despite his recent surge, “polls released this week paint a bleak picture.” (The Hill)

  4. Senator Bernie Sanders, 82, has announced that he will seek reelection for Senate in Vermont. I’m starting to think Vermont is just this guy plus Ben and Jerry. (CBS

  5. Donald Trump was threatened with jail in his hush money trial in New York yesterday. After being found to have violated a gag order relating to the case for the tenth time, he was warned by Judge Juan Merchan that “going forward, this court will have to consider a jail sanction.” (Axios)

  6. The number of kids who read for pleasure falls off a cliff in the third and fourth grades, and the phenomenon is called “decline by nine.” Fifty-seven percent of eight-year-olds say they read for fun most days, compared to just 35 percent of nine-year-olds. (Slate

  7. The actress Victoria Justice recently said that filming a sex scene made her feel uncomfortable, causing some to argue that we shouldn’t have sex scenes in movies at all. Freddie deBoer dissects the strange progressive attitudes toward sex that are both relentlessly sex positive but also terrified of the act. (Freddie deBoer)

  8. Under political pressure, DEI is being rebranded. Another solution: scrap it altogether. (The Washington Post)

  9. Seventy-nine percent of adults arrested with illegal guns in D.C. get away without any felony conviction. Crazy Second Amendment hot take here, but how about we start by enforcing existing gun laws? (DC Crime Facts)

  10. Ted Gioia thinks that Starbucks’s transition from coffee company to sugary drink dispensary is a sign of a deeper societal malaise: “Maybe those goofy sugar-filled purple-and-green drinks are all we deserve.” (The Honest Broker)

There are few things more gratifying to a journalist than a note from a reader who has engaged with your work. These notes can be moving, thought-provoking, and illuminating. They keep us honest by pointing out a mistake we’ve made or a part of the story the reader thinks we have missed. They also keep us motivated: every email is a reminder that our readers are thousands of individuals, each with their own perspectives, expertise, and stories. 

But the messages we get from you shouldn’t just be for us editors and reporters. We want you to hear from one another. 

Which is why we’re launching our new letters page—a weekly roundup of the best of our correspondence with readers—starting today. 

Our inaugural letters page includes. . .  

Readers’ go-to icebreakers, inspired by David Sedaris’s ode to small talk. Our favorites include Branan’s—“So, who killed JFK?”—and Fen’s opening line to young, silent grumps on the way to work: “Are you a morning person?” 

A meaty exchange on the threats to freedom and privacy posed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Adam I. Klein, the director of the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, says FISA is nothing to fear. The Free Press’s Isaac Grafstein disagrees. 

And a letter from a Free Presser whose mother started writing an entry to our recent senior wisdom essay competition but passed away before she could finish it. We publish the start of her entry, inspired by a beloved pecan tree. 

Read the full letters page here. And consider this your open invitation to write to us. Aim for 200 words. Points for good jokes:

→ Columbia cancels commencement: Columbia has canceled its main commencement event after weeks of anti-Israel protests and disorder on campus. The school will instead offer smaller, school-specific ceremonies and said in a statement that “these past few weeks have been incredibly difficult for our community.”

So no traditional commencement, no in-person classes, and no in-person exams. But other than that, a well-run, functioning center of learning, not at all derailed by the Gaza encampment on its campus. 

→ Swagger like us: There’s been a brace of Free Press mentions in the establishment media in the last few days. First, The New York Times’s executive editor Joe Kahn was asked whether he reads The Free Press. “Yes,” he said. Hi, Joe! “I think they do valuable reporting,” he added, among some other things we couldn’t really make out (it was dark).

Meanwhile, over at Politico, media columnist Jack Shafer listed The Free Press as an example of an outlet with swagger, a scarce resource in modern journalism. Thanks, Jack! 

But enough about us—back to important stuff, like rich people wearing expensive dresses. 

→ Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking: The Met Gala is a photo op dressed up as a fundraiser, where tickets run $75,000. So you could say it’s ironic that “The Garden of Time,” the theme of this year’s event, was borrowed from a J.G. Ballard short story about a coming class war. But 2019’s “Camp” theme had similar problems—since camp’s all about arch-outsiderness—and it didn’t matter back then, because the sparkly attendees delivered. That wasn’t the case last night.

It’s actually hard, if you have the body or face of an Elsa Pataky or a Zendaya, to look bad. But they did. Then there was Lana Del Rey, who looked like she’d stumbled out of a high school production of Into the Woods. Gabrielle Union looked like a fish. J. Lo managed to make Schiaparelli look cheap. Even Kim K’s sweater was pilling. 

There were some bright spots. Taylor Russell, for example, in Loewe, mixed a corset that looked as hard as a tree trunk with a skirt like a soft white tulip. Doja Cat, who appeared around the city throughout the day dressed in only a sheet, then a towel, and finally at the museum in a long, wet t-shirt, always pushes the envelope and gives the people a show. Cardi B looked ridiculous, but in a good way.

But for the most part? It was a pastel Connecticut prom on Ozempic. —Suzy Weiss

Andrea recommends Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and County Highway, a new print-only newspaper founded by Walter Kirn and David Samuels. 

In response to our request for good songs to sing in the shower, Walt recommends “American Pie”: “Seven minutes of pure torture for my wife.”

Send recommendations for local stores and restaurants, springtime recipes, morning routines, or whatever else to

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman

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