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News + PoliticsProtestAt Columbia, the Gaza encampment was peaceful, collaborative, and considerate

At Columbia, the Gaza encampment was peaceful, collaborative, and considerate

And then the police came. A student's perspective


The pulse of student movements has historically been targeted. This bloodstained spectrum of violence moves me to think about the destruction of every university in Palestine.

The New York Times, 1966:  “Senate Internal Security subcommittee charged tonight that communists had played a key role in organizing campus demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.”

Reading the article was like listening to a haunting on loop, except the pitch is not inconsequential. 

Community-centered camp on a campus that was heavily policed.

American universities boast of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, curating faces for print materials, when their demographics prove otherwise. Enrollment of Latine students at Columbia, where I go to school, is 9 percent. That’s a weak representation of the 29 percent Latine population of New York City.

In Columbia classrooms, I am invariably the only Mexican student at the table. I listen to comments from white peers about how shocking it is that Richard Wright could “write good.”

What bodies are extended comfort and what bodies are in true danger surface as Columbia’s masked curriculum.

My first experience of Columbia alerting us that the gates to the school would be policed was on October 11, 2023. The administration’s constraints came after a peaceful call to action for Palestine was organized for the following day.

This policy was repeated through 39 email communications, and escalating campus militarization, including the pernicious email April 30, completely hindering my access to campus and the capacity to protect my peers.

The announcement by Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine  regarding the October 12th action asked participants not to engage with counter protestors and to remain peaceful and focused. Those are teachings I will carry with me forever.

I am listening to the accounts of my Palestinian peers, who dream of going home, while bearing witness in real-time to the senseless carpet bombing of their dreams, their families, their homes.

The construction of the “outside agitator” narrative fails to accept that students in programs like mine get to know each other intimately through our work.

I frankly don’t know how I would respond if I were to learn that my tuition dollars funded the wrecking of my 100-year-old grandmother’s home, the premature death of my school-aged nieces and nephews, the jovial laughter of my uncles turned to despairing wails as they dug through rubble bare-handed.

The morning of April 17, I received a message from my younger sister on the opposite coast with a list of ways to support The Gaza Solidarity Encampment. The encampment asked to re-center attention to Palestine, and it worked.

That same morning a friend from home sent me $40 for lunch. I bought food for the encampment.

Many of us forced to live on the margin were raised on traditions and customs that push back on individualism. Sharing food with each other is the most basic of our practices. When the NYPD was first called to forcefully remove peaceful protestors from their own campus, it was not surprising to witness the picketers circling in protection.

As a student who actually got to experience the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, I will say it was the most mutual aid-centered, collaborative learning, inter-faith respected, considerate space on Columbia’s campus since the time I accepted admission. Organizers called for volunteers to collect trash, raise tents, and protect Muslim prayers with blankets, and we obliged unhesitatingly. I saw children of supporters painting, imprinting cartwheels on the lawn. This is what community cultivates.

Outside of the camp I was called a “terrorist” for wearing a keffiyeh. Anything I did in response would be taken out of context for a sound bite, so I remained silent. When I sat to write this article in a coffee shop, a woman approached to warn me of a Craigslist ad offering to compensate for photos of individuals wearing keffiyehs. “Happy Hunting” the ad menacingly threatened.

When our peers reclaim Hind’s Hall, Ben Chang, vice president of communications for Columbia, will contend the scale of support for pro-Palestine protest on campus is small. But the need to completely lock out the student body, faculty, Columbia student press, and community directly speak to the actual scale of support.

We still bore witness to our peers being pushed down steps, left unconscious, medics denied entry. And President Minouche Shafik praising the police for their professionalism the next day.

To date, I have not received one email from administration addressing Reuven Kahane facing charges of hitting pro-Palestinian demonstrators with his car. Nor the police brutality on campus. Nor the Craiglist ad. Nor the reports of undergraduates being cat-called by the police on campus (according to an anonymous interview on WCKR). Not all students are protected from discomfort, violence, threats, and danger.

When I applied to Columbia, I told them exactly who I was and what I expected of them. “While I welcome the opportunity, and prestige of Columbia University, what is of most value to me is the possibility that Columbia, as an institution, can contribute to this labor of healing. A healing that speaks to its own part played in epistemic genocide.”

Columbia admitted me, but I don’t know if they will ever accept me, and my unwavering support for the Palestinian People.

Stephanie Gutierrez Rios is a Columbia MFA candidate from Oakland.

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