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NYC mayor says 'outside agitators' are co-opting Columbia protests—students disagree

Students and pro-Palestinian activists face police as they gather outside of Columbia University to protest the university's stance on Israel's war in Gaza.
Spencer Platt
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Students and pro-Palestinian activists face police as they gather outside of Columbia University to protest the university's stance on Israel's war in Gaza.

Updated May 02, 2024 at 14:11 PM ET

As more college students across the nation hold anti-war demonstrations on their campuses, some are being met with intense law enforcement responses.

Earlier this week, officers arrested hundreds of demonstrators at Columbia University. Maryam Alwan, a student at Columbia and an active participant in the anti-war demonstrations, said she was there when police officers raided the New York City campus.

"I was posting videos of the police throwing tables and breaking windows in real time yesterday," Alwan said at a press conference held by students at Columbia University. "To be clear, the police caused far more property damage and physical endangerment than my classmates ever did."

During a press conference on Wednesday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said city police were sent to Columbia University upon administrative request.

"Outside agitators were on their grounds, training and really co-opting this movement." Adams said.

But student activists at the university, like Cameron Jones, reject the mayor's statement saying that the movement is student-led.

"There is a reason why the student-led movement has garnered unstoppable momentum, on campuses worldwide, because we stand on the right side of history. We stand for humanity," Jones said.

The conflict began at Columbia University, a day after the university's president, Minouche Shafik, testified before a Congressional hearing in Washington, DC, and urged NYPD officials to break up demonstrations led by protestors against Israel's war in Gaza on the New York City campus.

Since then, demonstrations from protesters and counter protesters have popped up across several universities in the country, leading to more law enforcement interventions and student arrests.

Adams told NPR that he sent city police officers to Columbia's campus after learning that one of the protester's was not a student.

"What really was the tipping point for me was when I learned that one of the outside agitators's husband was arrested for federal terrorism charges," Adams said. "I knew I could not sit back and state that I'm going to allow this to continue to escalate."

However, Nahla Al-Arian, the person he mentioned in this interview, told The Associated Press that the mayor had misstated both her role in the protests and her husband's history, who is a former computer engineering professor and prominent Palestinian activist.

This morning, hundreds of police officers moved into the University of California, Los Angeles, campus to break-up a protest encampment. Last night, police removed several protesters from Fordham University's New York City campus. And this week, officers cleared protesters at City College of New York as well.

This interview with Mayor Eric Adams has been edited for length and clarity.

Michel Martin: So, earlier this week, you said that, "outside agitators" had co-opted the student protests at Columbia. How did you know? Did you have a plainclothes presence? Did you have informants?

Eric Adams: I just had a gut reaction based on my years in law enforcement. And I asked the intelligence division of the police department to look into it through an analysis. Do we see familiar faces and people around the protests? And they came back substantiated on the Columbia grounds and on other grounds that there were those who were professionals who participated in training, participated in some of the activities. And just this morning, what was given to me by my team was a preliminary review of the numbers. This is just a beginning process of analyzing. But it appears as though over 40% of those who participated in Columbia and CUNY were not from the school, and they were outsiders.

Martin: Now that you've had some time to process these arrests, you think it's about like 40%. So, that says like 60% are students. So, let me ask you about this, in some cities, local authorities have declined to let municipal officers get involved in these on campus demonstrations, even if they were asked to do so. I do want to mention here that some of these arrests happened before people took over that building and barricaded themselves inside. So what was the line for you? At what point did you decide that this was warranted?

Adams: Anytime we stepped on college grounds, it was with the permission and authorization of the leadership, and we were very clear we would have moved sooner on many occasions, but we were clear that we would only do it if the schools called us to do so.

Martin: Well, I know that's my point, because in some places the police have not done it even if they were asked. So I'm asking you, why did you feel it was warranted when you were asked?

Adams: What really was the tipping point for me was when I learned that one of the outside agitators's husband was arrested for federal terrorism charges. I knew I could not sit back and state that I'm going to allow this to continue to escalate. And that is why I made that determination on the Columbia University when the school sent us a letter to reinforce their observations that there were outside individuals influencing the protests.

Martin: So I'm going to guess that you have constituents on all sides of this. What is your priority here?

Adams: Public safety. I said it over and over again. It's a prerequisite to our prosperity, public safety and justice.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.