Protests have erupted at colleges and universities nationwide over the Israel-Hamas war.

Columbia University has seen student protesters camping out on the school’s campus since April 17. Pro-Palestinian protesters are calling for the Ivy League school to financially pull out from companies and institutions that “profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine,” according to an online statement from the group Columbia University Apartheid Divest.

However, Columbia’s investments are not public information and remain largely unknown.

Following Columbia University President Minouche Shafik’s congressional hearing about antisemitism on campus, the encampment drew a larger group of protesters.

On April 18, one day after Shafik’s testimony, more than 100 protesters at Columbia University were arrested and an on-campus tent encampment was removed after Shafik gave the New York Police Department the green light to clear the protesters, officials said.

In a statement following the protests, Shafik said that the encampment “violates all of the new policies, severely disrupts campus life and creates a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

“Students and outside activists breaking Hamilton Hall doors, mistreating our Public Safety officers and maintenance staff, and damaging property are acts of destruction, not political speech,” said Shafik. “Many students have also felt uncomfortable and unwelcome because of the disruption and antisemitic comments made by some individuals, especially in the protests that have persistently mobilized outside our gates.”

Maryam Alwan, a student at Columbia University, was one of those students arrested on April 18 by New York City police wearing riot gear. After being held in police custody for approximately eight hours with other protestors, Alwan returned the same day to the Columbia University campus, despite being ordered not to do so.

PHOTO: Student protesters camp on the campus of Columbia University, April 30, 2024, in New York.

Student protesters camp on the campus of Columbia University, April 30, 2024, in New York.

Mary Altaffer/AP

The next evening, Columbia University sent an email suspending Alwan and other students who were arrested at what was dubbed the ‘Gaza Solidarity Encampment.’ Colleges across the country used similar strategies to subdue campus protests against the Israel-Hamas war.

Despite her suspension, Alwan remained on the Columbia University campus for the next eight days, sleeping each night at another protestor encampment. She finally left on April 26, but returned on April 30, the day NYPD officers raided Hamilton Hall. Alwan and others were held some distance away in a separate building as officers forcibly removed students and some outsiders who had broken into and barricaded themselves in the academic building.

Alwan spoke with “Start Here” Thursday about what it’s been like at Columbia University.

PHOTO: Students march and rally on Columbia University campus in support of a protest encampment supporting Palestinians during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City, April 29, 2024.

Students march and rally on Columbia University campus in support of a protest encampment supporting Palestinians, despite a 2pm deadline issued by university officials to disband or face suspension, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York City, April 29, 2024.

Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

START HERE: Maryam, what has it been like on your campus the last few days?

MARYAM ALWAN: It’s been extremely tense. It’s been almost an all-out war between the majority of the student body and the administration. And that came to a boiling point on Tuesday night.

I was present as hundreds, I believe over 100 police officers, came onto campus in riot gear for the second time in two weeks and arrested over 100 students on the 56th anniversary of the same day that the administration arrested over 700 students protesting the Vietnam War and the gentrification of Harlem in 1968.

And I was one of the the over 100 students that was arrested and suspended for the encampment two weeks ago. But what I saw on Tuesday night was shockingly horrifying, much more brutal than what I experienced. And I’m honestly unsure how Columbia is going to recover from this.

START HERE: And can you tell me, you got arrested originally in that first group of protesters, then the school said, ‘OK, we’re done with the arrests for now.’ Instead they say, ‘we’re gonna start suspending students that are there.’ You were also one of those students, right? And then you went back to the school the night the police raided the occupied building?

MARYAM ALWAN: I went back as soon as I was arrested. I returned back to campus and I, in fact, I believe it was almost seven to 10, somewhere between seven and 10 days that I spent on campus without returning home after I was arrested, just staying as part of the community even though I was suspended, and then what happened was on Tuesday night.

We were trying to get to the periphery of campus to just watch what was going on from the outside.

START HERE: Even though you’re like you’re not supposed to be on campus at that point, if you’re suspended, I assume?

MARYAM ALWAN: No I should not have been on campus at any point within the past two weeks.


MARYAM ALWAN: So I was just filled with adrenaline and I decided to risk further disciplinary action in order to just document what was going on. And what ended up happening was they, the police, pushed back every single person, from the press to observers, student press, official press, legal observers, medics, they pushed us all back into the building across from the occupied building.

They barricaded us inside. It almost seemed like the administration and the police were collaborating to ensure that no one saw what was going to happen.

There was no one present in front of the hall when they began entering and students were recording from their dorms. So It just seems, it feels like we turned into an authoritarian state. I still can’t really process what really occurred.

START HERE: Well, last night the university put out a statement saying these were not nonviolent protesters; there was severe damage inflicted on the building.

They also said out of 202 arrests from that raid, only 109 were students…which kind of spoke to this rationale from police and the university here that this is no longer just a student protest. There were primarily outside agitators going into those buildings.

I mean, a) is that true, from your perspective? and b) do you support that occupation of those buildings?

MARYAM ALWAN: A.) that is not true. I believe that this outside agitator narrative has been historically, you know, propagated over and over again, within student movements such as Black Lives Matter as well, in order to delegitimize the movement. But I believe, according to the reports that have come out, majority of the students in the building were students — were our classmates, were our peers, taking you know, unprecedented and drastic actions to stand up for what is right.

I am not going to sit here and say that I you know — I don’t support, I don’t support property damage or things of that nature. But the police caused way more property damage and endangerment of lives on Tuesday night.

START HERE: Because I do think that’s kind of like the disconnect that a lot of Americans are seeing is they’re like, OK, she had the, you had the encampment and the school was like, ‘well, we’d like to have a commencement’; they try to push people out, people come back in.

Then students start – if it is students – start taking over buildings. And I got to imagine the college is like, ‘Well, OK, this is an even further escalation, we, we should have, we should have been more aggressive from the beginning, not less aggressive,’ because now the actual school buildings that we use, they’re being damaged. I mean, what, what is the rationale then for escalating it like that from the students perspective?

MARYAM ALWAN: That makes sense. I would say, though, that from our perspective, the administration has refused to listen to us over and over again and has violated its own procedures and practices to crack down on us. I mean historically, through student movements, the more authorities crack down and refuse to listen, the more people rise up against them because they see that the excessive force and the loopholes that they are using are illegitimate in the first place.

START HERE: So what would you like to see happen? What is, is the only answer, the only answer is ‘we won’t leave unless there’s divestment?’ Because then I guess the question, the next question then is, well, what else do you expect to happen besides that, eventually, the police get involved?

MARYAM ALWAN: Um, divestment! I mean

START HERE: I mean, like, that’s the ultimatum that you guys are putting out there, then.

MARYAM ALWAN: I could, I could ask the same question to the administration, I could ask them if you continue to bring the police and people continue to become horrified by your actions and realize the extent to which all of our oppression is interlinked.

All people of color, including, you know, my Jewish peers who are fighting alongside me, if we are all, you know, deemed worthy of being tossed around by the police that you call onto campus, then it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a push back to the point of even more chaos. So yeah, I would ask the administration the same question, frankly.

START HERE: New York City Mayor Eric Adams, he used the words professional and thorough in describing the behavior of officers, saying there are no hospitalizations reported as of yet. When we talk about the other big piece of pushback over these protests themselves… it’s other students, particularly Jewish students, not feeling safe on campus. I guess I’m wondering have you seen harassment of Jewish American students at this point? Is that a concern for the organizers of these protests?

MARYAM ALWAN: I do want to re-emphasize that a core component of the organizers are, in fact, Jewish themselves. SJP was suspended alongside Jewish Voices for Peace in the fall semester, and we’ve always had a very tightknit relationship.

But of course, that doesn’t, you know, take away from the fact that antisemitism spreads on the fringes of social movements. And we have, we have seen instances, especially outside of the campus gates, but we’ve taken steps to mitigate this. We held an antisemitism teach-in at the encampment last week.

And I just, I think, what’s more, most concerning is the weaponization of, you know, claiming that those who are, we’re calling for Palestinian rights are inherently antisemitic, because then that detracts from the very real experiences of antisemitism that my friends are experiencing. I cannot think of a single social movement in history specifically a student-led social movement in history where that was met with police and state violence that did not end up being on the right side of history and commended by the schools themselves decades down the line.

Even Columbia’s own website commemorates the protests of 1968. I think that history will not look kindly upon those who condone violence upon students who are protesting.

START HERE: Um, are you going back to Columbia next year? It’s the end of the year, are you going back? Columbia costs money. Are you gonna pay money to Columbia next year?

MARYAM ALWAN: I will, if they don’t expel me, I do want to finish my degree. I also think that as horrifying and as, as this experience has been, and as completely disillusioned as I am with the administration, I have never felt more proud to be a part of the student body and the faculty, the faculty and scholars whose books I learned from and whose tactics we learned from to support our movements for human rights and these things, literally collaborating with us on an individual basis now, I never would have dreamed of this growing up.

So I will be coming back and we will hopefully reforge a new Columbia that is dictated by the students and the faculty and academia, as opposed to these forces that are cracking down.

START HERE: Yeah. I hadn’t thought of it like this until this moment, it’s almost a question of whether you divest from the school yourself, or whether you come back to continue pushing these issues as a student. She still goes there for now, Maryam Alwan. Thank you so much for the time. Appreciate it.

MARYAM ALWAN: Thank you so much. It was great to speak with you.

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