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Columbia University holds remote classes as pro-Palestinian tent city returns; NYPD says its options are limited

Protests at Columbia University showing no signs of dying down
Protests at Columbia University showing no signs of dying down 03:02

NEW YORK -- Columbia University switched to remote learning Monday, as pro-Palestinian protests entered their sixth day on the school's campus in New York City.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik announced classes would be held virtually "to deescalate the rancor and give us all a chance to consider next steps." The university initially said it would offer a remote learning option, but then made it mandatory.

"Faculty and staff who can work remotely should do so; essential personnel should report to work according to university policy," the president's statement continued. "Our preference is that students who do not live on campus will not come to campus."

It's a move criticized by some students and professors.

"I'm a Jewish Israeli professor. I teach at Columbia. It's my right to be on campus and the university is denying my entrance to the university," Shai Davidai said.

Chopper 2 flew over the campus Monday morning and spotted the return of an encampment of tents on the school's grounds. 

A tent encampment at Columbia University on April 22, 2024.  CBS2

Last week, Shafik asked the NYPD to come onto the grounds and remove a previous encampment. More than 100 people were arrested.

At a news conference Monday, members of the NYPD said the campus is private property and -- barring an emergency that requires an immediate response -- police are, therefore, limited in how they can respond, and can do so only if asked.

NYPD officials explained that even if they want to do more to police campus property, they must show restraint.

"What we can and can't do is different than what we can do on public street," NYPD Deputy Commissioner Michael Gerber said. "If someone, for example, is being attacked we're gonna go into Columbia University as we would do a private home to protect that person."

"The only NYPD assistance they asked is for us to patrol the outside the outer perimeter of the school," NYPD Deputy Commissioner Kaz Daughtry said.

Barricades remained in place outside the school gates Monday, and CBS New York learned additional security guards would be on patrol, along with enhanced ID checks at entrances.

Shafik said she wants to sit down, talk and even "argue" to come up with a compromise to the tensions on campus, adding a group of deans and administrators will help facilitate those conversations in the coming days.

Meanwhile, New York City and state leaders are speaking out against anti-Jewish rhetoric, with Passover set to start at sundown.

Responding to the protests, Mayor Eric Adams told CBS News on Monday there is no place for hate in New York City.

"This country holds dear the right to voice one's opinion, but that voicing of opinion, I don't believe personally, should call out the level of hate that we're seeing and the level of threats that we're seeing," Adams said.

The mayor said there are no credible threats in New York at this time, but the city remains on high alert. He said his office will be meeting with colleges and universities in the city to explain how to engage and work with the NYPD to make sure that the demonstrations remain safe.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul visited Columbia's campus Monday morning to meet with leadership and discuss the recent demonstrations. She met with Shafik, law enforcement and students, she said.

"Right now, there are many students not feeling safe on campus," Hochul said. "Students are scared. They're afraid to walk on campus. They don't deserve that. They deserve to be in an environment that's free from discrimination, as required by state human rights laws."

Hochul added she had once been a student protester, herself, but "I've never seen a level of protest that's so person-to-person, that's so visceral." 

"This is our lives, this is our safety. A lot of Jewish students have gone home for Passover, there aren't so many in there right now. Jewish students are petrified," one student said Monday morning.

A counter protest outside the campus gates was largely peaceful Monday but there was at least one heated exchange.

"Ninety-five percent of Jewish people are Zionist. So if you don't want to be part of the Jewish tribe, you have the right to do so. But you are not the spokesperson of the Jewish people, these -- all of them here -- are," one person said.

"I'm not a spokesperson of the Jewish people, I'm a spokesperson for what I believe in, OK? And I'm not comfortable," the other person replied.

"They want the larger community to consider what is happening in the Mideast. They want their voices to be heard," one man said of the afternoon demonstrations.

Actor Michael Rapaport made clear his position on the war and next steps.

"Happy Passover to everybody," he said. "Agenda number one is free our hostages. Do not be afraid of being Jewish, especially in New York City."

Antisemitism and safety concerns

The protests erupted Wednesday, as Shafik testified before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce about antisemitism on college campuses. The hearing lasted several hours, and many Columbia students watched to see Shafik's commitment to their safety

In light of the protests, the White House released a statement denouncing antisemitism. 

"While every American has the right to peaceful protest, calls for violence and physical intimidation targeting Jewish students and the Jewish community are blatantly antisemitic, unconscionable, and dangerous -- they have absolutely no place on any college campus, or anywhere in the United States of America. And echoing the rhetoric of terrorist organizations, especially in the wake of the worst massacre committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, is despicable. We condemn these statements in the strongest terms," Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates said.

Hochul also took to the social media platform to reiterate the right to peaceful assembly, but said threats of violence against Jewish students will not be tolerated.

"The First Amendment protects the right to protest but students also have a right to learn in an environment free from harassment or violence. At Columbia or on any campus, threatening Jewish students with violence or glorifying the terror of Oct. 7 is antisemitism," Hochul said.  

Monday morning, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he was no longer comfortable supporting Columbia "until corrective action is taken." 

On Sunday, Rep. Elise Stefanik called on Shafik to resign.

"While Columbia's failed leadership spent hundreds of hours preparing for this week's Congressional hearing, it clearly was an attempt to cover up for their abject failure to enforce their own campus rules and protect Jewish students on campus," Stefanik said on X, formerly known as Twitter. "Over the past few months and especially the last 24 hours, Columbia's leadership has clearly lost control of its campus putting Jewish students' safety at risk. It is crystal clear that Columbia University -- previously a beacon of academic excellence founded by Alexander Hamilton -- needs new leadership. President Shafik must immediately resign. And the Columbia Board must appoint a President who will protect Jewish students and enforce school policies."

Jewish students say they're living in fear; Rabbi tells them to stay home

Jewish students on campus say they've been living in constant fear since the protests began, as they believe many of the chants are antisemitic.

That, in part, prompted a rabbi associated with Columbia's Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on campus to say he is recommending Jewish students remain home amid the protests on campus.

However, after that message was sent to students, Campus Hillel issued a contrasting statement on X, saying it does not believe Jewish students should leave campus, adding, "We do believe that the university and the city need to do more to ensure the safety of our students."

A different rabbi, Yehuda Drizin, of the university's Chabad, decided to deliver matzo to students celebrating Passover. 

"This is a formative moment and none of them deserve to be in this. This is outrageous. It's insane, but at the same time, what I'm seeing, the students step up and confidently come to the Seder and eat the matzah and say we're strong and we're proud and we're not fearful. That's the reaction I'm seeing and it's amazing," Drizin said. "Sometimes it takes, at moments, just the individual walking with faith and confidence through whatever is in their way in their face. Eventually, it splits open and they make it through."

Protests continue over the weekend

More than 100 people have been arrested since the pro-Palestinian demonstrations began last week both on and near the campus in Upper Manhattan.

Protesters started occupying the South Lawn on Wednesday, setting up a makeshift encampment made of tents. They have been critical of Columbia's response to the Israel-Hamas war and are calling on the university to divest from Israel.

"We are demanding total financial transparency. This is something most schools, many schools, state schools, all provide just transparency about where ethic investments are coming from, what they're investing in," said one student, named Sarah, who was protesting inside the encampment. 

"It was disturbing to see Columbia call the cops on students," she added. "They're putting their professions, physical and mental well being on the line in support of a cause that they know is just, which is Palestinian freedom in our lifetime."

School administrators warned students to leave the encampment by Wednesday night or face suspension. The NYPD took more than 100 people into custody Thursday, after Shafik said the demonstration violated safety policies.

Columbia said in a statement, "Students do not have permission to set up tents on the lawn. Those who do are in violation of long-standing University policy and will be identified and subjected to disciplinary action."    

On Saturday, a large group of protesters gathered outside the university gates, while students returned to the main lawn on campus. Four more people were arrested and released with summonses, according to NYPD. 

Students camped out in tents, socializing, and chanting things like "Resistance is glorious." Those inside the encampment said the pro-Palestinian demonstrators who were heard outside the gates of the school were not student-affiliated.

Meanwhile, students at other colleges, MIT and Emerson College in Boston, held rallies in solidarity with Columbia students. In Washington, the House passed a $95 billion foreign aid package Saturday that includes funds for Israel and humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Encampment pops up at The New School

A group of students at The New School also set up tents inside the Union Square campus.

About a dozen students took over the school's University Center on West 12th Street on Sunday, setting up tents and making signs reading "Gaza Solidarity Encampment."

In an online post, the group said it is standing in solidarity with protesters at Columbia.

The New School said its president will meet with student groups on Monday to consider their requests for financial transparency of the university's investments.

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