“People don’t feel comfortable walking through a mob to get into campus. That’s crazy,” Mario Torres tells The Free Press. (Photo by Alex Kent/Getty Images)

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

‘We don’t expect to go to work and get swarmed.’ A Free Press exclusive with facilities worker Mario Torres.

It’s the viral image that captured the clash between the anti-Israel protesters who stormed Columbia and the campus workers who tried to stop them. As the mob invaded Hamilton Hall in the early hours of April 30, a facilities worker was photographed pushing a demonstrator against a wall. 

Later, it emerged that the protester was a 40-year-old trust fund kid named James Carlson, who owns a townhouse in Brooklyn worth $2.3 million. The man who tried to hold him back was Mario Torres, 45, who has worked at Columbia—where the average janitor makes less than $19 an hour—for five years.

Now, in an exclusive interview with The Free Press, Mario Torres describes the experience of being on duty as protesters stormed the building in the early hours of the morning, breaking glass and barricading the entrances. “We don’t expect to go to work and get swarmed by an angry mob with rope and duct tape and masks and gloves,” he said.

“They came from both sides of the staircases. They came through the elevators and they were just rushing. It was just like, they had a plan.” Mario said protesters with zip ties, duct tape, and masks “just multiplied and multiplied.”

At one point, he remembers “looking up and I noticed the cameras are covered.” It made him think: “This was definitely planned.”

Torres was trying to “protect the building” when he ended up in an altercation with Carlson: “He had a Columbia hoodie on, and I managed to rip that hoodie off of him and expose his face.” (Carlson was later charged with five felonies, including burglary and reckless endangerment.) “I was freaking out. At that point, I’m thinking about my family. How was I gonna get out? Through the window?”

Torres has not been to campus since the incident. He says he does not feel safe. “When it comes to the public safety, the workers’ safety, people don’t feel comfortable walking through a mob to punch in to get into campus. That’s crazy,” he said.

He added that he’s worried Columbia might take disciplinary action against him for speaking out. He worries about losing a job he loves. He worries about supporting his young family.

“Is Columbia going to retaliate and find a reason to fire me? Is someone going to come after me? So I’m taking a big risk doing this, but I think that they failed. They failed us. And I think that’s the bigger story. They failed us. They should have done more to protect us, and they didn’t.”

After this piece published, a Columbia spokesperson told The Free Press, “Mr. Torres remains a valued member of the Columbia community. University policies prohibit retaliation against any employee who raises concerns in good faith.”

To hear Torres’s exclusive interview with Free Press reporter Francesca Block, watch here:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that James Carlson’s townhome is worth $3.4 million. Carlson purchased his townhome for $2.3 million. His parents’ home, also in Brooklyn, is worth $3.4 million. The Free Press regrets the error.

A GoFundMe has been arranged to help Mario Torres get the legal support he needs. Check it out here

Francesca Block is a reporter for The Free Press. Read her work here. For more exclusive stories, subscribe today:

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