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NYPD mobilizes outside Columbia University after Mayor Adams warns protesters to "leave the area now"

NYC mayor, NYPD say "outside agitators" are influencing Columbia University protests
NYC mayor, NYPD say "outside agitators" are influencing Columbia University protests 16:48

NEW YORK -- The NYPD entered Columbia University to clear out protesters Tuesday night. 

The move came after Mayor Eric Adams issued a stern warning to protesters to "leave the area." Pro-Palestinian demonstrators occupied a building early Tuesday, prompting the university to threaten them with expulsion. 

Columbia warned students at the Morningside Heights campus to "shelter in place for your safety" amid the heightened police presence. "Avoid the area until further notice," the campus alert read.

Adams said "external actors" are "attempting to hijack this process," and called on the protesters who are still involved to "walk away from this situation now, and continue your advocacy through other means." 

"They are actively creating serious public safety issues at these protests," Adams said. "We can not and will not allow what should be a peaceful gathering to turn into a violent spectacle that serves no purpose. We can not wait until this situation becomes even more serious. This must end now." 

Tensions escalated on campus as students barricaded themselves inside Hamilton Hall, which sits on Amsterdam Avenue and is across from the main lawn, where a tent encampment was set up. Furniture could be seen boarded against doors, and supplies were being lifted up to people inside the building via a rope and pulley. 

Administrators responded by locking the campus gates down, only allowing essential workers and students access to the school. 

In a statement Tuesday, Columbia said this is no longer a debate about the students' reasons or cause, but rather their actions. The university added the number of protesters is small when compared to the overall student body. 

"We have a student population of almost 37,000. We estimate about 15,000 students will be graduating this spring, next month actually. And we have, again to scale, dozens on the lawn in the encampments, and dozens in Hamilton Hall," Columbia University's Vice President of Communications Ben Chang said. 

Mayor Adams: Outside agitators have coopted the protest

"I have been saying for days, if not weeks now, that what should have been a peaceful protest, it has basically been coopted by professional, outside agitators," Adams said Tuesday. "We were well aware based on a series of observations that what should've been a peaceful protest that's part of a constitutional rights of Americans has clearly been coopted. A right that this administration supports and defends to support your concern." 

Adams urged everyone violating Columbia's policies to "leave the area, and leave the area now. And if you're a parent of a student, please call your child and urge them to leave the area before the situation escalates in any way. This is for their own safety, and the safety of others." 

"We are seeing professional, external actors getting involved in these protests, including in the occupation of a university building," Police Commissioner Edward Caban said. "These people are not Columbia students. They are not affiliated with the university and they are working to escalate the situation. We are seeing their tactics changing in a way that's endangering public safety. These once peaceful protests are being exploited by professional outside agitators and the safety of all students, faculty and staff are now a concern." 

NYPD officials pointed to escalating tactics of the protests, including the takeover of the building, damaging cameras, reports of physical altercations and signs being "fortified into shields." 

To support their claims, police showed videos they said showed students trying to prevent the break-in "being intimidated," barricades being dragged into Hamilton Hall, "some training sessions that are occurring within the encampment itself." 

People occupying Hamilton Hall could face burglary, criminal mischief and trespassing. For people in the encampments outside, they could face trespassing and disorderly conduct charges. 

Video shows Hamilton Hall being taken over

Columbia University Issues Deadline For Gaza Encampment To Vacate Campus
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators watch as protesters take over Hamilton Hall on Columbia's campus on Tuesday, April 30, 2024 in New York City. Alex Kent / Getty Images

Early Tuesday morning, a large group of pro-Palestinian supporters started a demonstration outside Hamilton Hall, chanting things like, "Free Palestine." Video showed a smaller group force their way into the building. 

It came hours after faculty suspended students who ignored an order to break up their encampments and leave. 

Cellphone video obtained by CBS New York showed demonstrators using hammers to smash windows just after midnight before locking themselves inside Hamilton Hall, the university's main administrative building. At one point, they blocked the entrance. 

"Early this morning, a group of protestors occupied Hamilton Hall on the Morningside campus. In light of the protest activity on campus, members of the University community who can avoid coming to the Morningside campus today (Tuesday, April 30) should do so," the university said in a public safety announcement.   

Protesters unfurled several banners, including one that renamed the building "Hind's Hall," after Hind Rajab, a 6-year-old Palestinian girl killed in Gaza three months ago. They said they intend to stay inside until Columbia concedes to three demands: Divestment, financial transparency and amnesty. 

Students describe the scene

Two students who witnessed the protest said it was hostile and aggressive. 

"They barricaded themselves in, they brought chairs out, blocked the doors, and they moved outdoor, heavy metal tables, blockaded the doors... formed human chains and started protesting, and claiming that they had liberated the space, essentially," student Jonas Du told CBS New York. "Just a complete lack of administration, complete lack of public safety and NYPD."  

"They've just been targeting students, whomever they can find, calling them Zionists," junior Jessica Schwalb said. "If you hear them, they chant, 'We don't want no Zionists here.'"

Video showed some of the demonstrators chanting "Intifada! Intifada!" 

"They're willing to sacrifice any threats or risk their academic career on behalf of the people of Palestine, on behalf of the children in Rafah," one student with the pro-Palestinian movement said. 

"When they say 'Globalize the intifada,' and when they say 'Glory to our martyrs,' ... what they mean is that they support terror attacks on whoever, and I'm saying 'whoever,' because it's not only against Israel," student Omer Granot-Lubaton said. 

"It was pretty horrific to witness. The building I live in is adjacent to Hamilton Hall. I could hear the screaming," student David Pomerantz said. "I got about five calls from my parents this morning asking for me to come home. I think it's hard for anyone to feel safe. I think it's hard for anybody to function normally as a college student and participate in exams and get their papers done." 

"I was intimidated. This is an unsafe place to be on campus. I think police should step in, and make sure that everybody feels safe on campus," one student said.   

"Our demands are divestment, disclosure and amnesty. The university has not been adequately addressing those demands, instead proposing further discipline," student negotiator Sueda Polat said. 

Some student negotiators held a news conference Tuesday afternoon, saying they will remain on campus until all their demands are met, and said that is why they have jeopardized their education and careers. 

"We don't have to agree with them. That's not always how it is. But when actions cross over into vandalism, harassment, destruction of property or even violence, then the line has been crossed," Gov. Kathy Hochul said. 

Adams condemned the actions of the student activists, and said the NYPD was standing by. 

"You cannot call for peace by using violence. That's not acceptable," Adams said. 

Some 21 members of Congress wrote a letter Tuesday to Columbia's Board of Trustees to "express our disappointment that, despite promises to do so, Columbia University has not yet disbanded the unauthorized and impermissible encampment of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish activists on campus." 

"We appreciate the Columbia administration's efforts this week to negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement that allows those in the encampment to voluntarily disburse without police intervention. But, after nearly a week of negotiations, it is now abundantly clear that the students and activists entrenched on campus are unwilling to enter into a reasonable agreement to disband, which is necessary to bring the University into compliance with Title VI," they wrote. "Those who violate the law cannot dictate the terms of the University's ability to comply with that law. It is past time for the University to act decisively, disband the encampment, and ensure the safety and security of all of its students."

Hamilton Hall is the same building demonstrators took over during the anti-Vietnam War protests of 1968

Until this point, the pro-Palestinian protests have been relatively contained, with most demonstrations happening either at the encampment or the sidewalk outside campus. 

Columbia's statement on expulsion

"We regret that protesters have chosen to escalate the situation through their actions. Our top priority is restoring safety and order on our campus.

"We made it very clear yesterday that the work of the University cannot be endlessly interrupted by protesters who violate the rules. Continuing to do so will be met with clear consequences. Protesters have chosen to escalate to an untenable situation -- vandalizing property, breaking doors and windows, and blockading entrances -- and we are following through with the consequences we outlined yesterday.

"Students occupying the building face expulsion.

"Protesters were informed that their participation in the encampment violated numerous university policies. We gave everyone at the encampment the opportunity to leave peacefully. By committing to abide by University policies, they would be allowed to complete the semester.

"Students who did not commit to the terms we offered are now being suspended. Those students will be restricted from all academic and recreational spaces and may only access their individual residence. Seniors will be ineligible to graduate.

"This is about responding to the actions of the protesters, not their cause.

"As we said yesterday, disruptions on campus have created a threatening environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty and a noisy distraction that interferes with teaching, learning, and preparing for final exams, and contributes to a hostile environment in violation of Title VI.

"The safety of our community remains our top priority."

Columbia limiting access to campus

That decision was made after pro-Palestinian demonstrators occupied Hamilton Hall overnight, in defiance of the deadline to disperse. 

In an update to students and staff, university officials said the Morningside campus may only be accessed by students who live in residential buildings, including Carman, Furnald, John Jay, Hartley, Wallach, East Campus and Wien, as well as essential employees. All entrances are closed except for the 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue gate.

University President Minouche Shafik had given protesters a 2 p.m. deadline Monday to clear their pro-Palestinian encampment that has been set up on the school's main lawn for two weeks. The president said negotiations between students and school administrators fell apart, with the university refusing their demand to divest from Israel. 

As of Tuesday morning, the encampment shrunk in size, and many of the protesters had moved to Hamilton Hall. Emotions continued to run high at protests off campus, too.

Will the NYPD be called to Columbia?

Columbia University Issues Deadline For Gaza Encampment To Vacate Campus
A demonstrator breaks the windows of the front door of the building in order to secure a chain around it to prevent authorities from entering on Tuesday, April 30, 2024 in New York City. Alex Kent / Getty Images

The NYPD had officers stationed outside the school's entrances where protests have popped up over the past few days, but police remained off campus. Officials have said the university is private property, so officers cannot respond unless requested or if there is a threat to public safety.

"As of right now, the NYPD's always ready, but we will not be going onto Columbia's property with a specific request from them or not, unless there is imminent danger, imminent emergency, where we have to go on the property," NYPD Chief of Department James Maddrey said Tuesday. "If there's an imminent emergency, someone screaming for help, someone needs assistance, being hurt... we will go on the property, we will address that situation."

Maddrey said the department has been speaking with the administration daily. Campus security has not provided an update on how they are responding but said in a statement a safety escort can be requested.  

"It's the end of the school year, young people are graduating, and you know it's something the NYPD is going to have to stand on the sidelines and be prepared to deal with alright," he said. 

Columbia's president called the NYPD on student protesters earlier this month when their encampment first took shape, and more than 100 people were taken into custody. NYU also called police when protesters staged a similar encampment in Gould Plaza.

Hochul said last week she would not send the National Guard to campus, and Adams has said the NYPD is ready to respond but it's ultimately the school's call. 

"The police and the media are the tools that demonstrators can use to amplify whatever the small group that's taken over the building are doing. So police are going to be very careful with how they handle any protest, including one that's off the campus and onto city property," CBS News Law Enforcement Contributor and former NYPD Deputy Commissioner Richard Esposito explained.  

Classes ended Monday. School buildings are needed for final exams in a few days, and the campus lawn is needed for commencement. The university said it will not cancel the graduation ceremony on May 15. 

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