Students from Columbia University in New York, where a student movement in favor of Palestine in the United States started, occupied a building during the night of Monday April 29 to Tuesday April 30, despite an ultimatum set by the presidency of the establishment for the end of the occupation.

After a relatively calm weekend on the campus, where a tent village is set up, the president of Columbia, Minouche Shafik, asked the 200 occupants of the encampment on Monday to leave the premises before 8 p.m. (French time), following of the failure of five days of negotiations to find an amicable solution.

These pro-Palestinian students and activists, who demand that Columbia, a private university, cut ties with patrons or companies linked to Israel, then called for “protecting the encampment”. “We will not be dislodged, except by force,” Sueda Polat, one of the movement’s leaders, proclaimed during a press briefing. A journalist from Agence France-Presse (AFP) counted around fifty people present in the small encampment on Monday evening, in a relaxed atmosphere and without police presence.

During the night, protesters barricaded themselves in the Hamilton building and others surrounded it, forming a human chain outside, according to a video posted on social media. Columbia began administratively suspending students in the evening.

“Members of the Columbia community took over Hamilton Hall just after midnight,” the student group Columbia University Apartheid Divest said in a statement. They renamed it “Hind’s Hall” in honor of a 6-year-old girl, Hind, who was killed during the Gaza war. “Taking control of a building is a small risk compared to the daily resistance of Palestinians in Gaza,” the group adds.

US President Joe Biden “believes that forcibly occupying a university building is the wrong approach” and is “not an example of peaceful protest,” Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday national security office of the White House.

UN concern

The UN reacted Tuesday to police actions on university campuses in the United States. “I am concerned that some measures taken by law enforcement at a range of universities appear to have a disproportionate impact,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk . He said he was troubled “by a series of heavy-handed measures taken to disperse and dismantle the demonstrations,” stressing that “freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are fundamental.”

Columbia assured Friday that it would not call on the New York police to evacuate the tents. But for Joseph Howley, a professor at Columbia, the ultimatum issued by the university president amounts to “giving in to external political pressure.” The wave of protest against Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip has been spreading across American universities for ten days. The movement started from Columbia, where one hundred people had been arrested on April 18.

Since then, hundreds of others – students, teachers and activists – have been questioned, sometimes arrested and prosecuted in several universities across the country. Images of riot police intervening on campuses, at the request of universities, have gone around the world, recalling similar events in the United States during the Vietnam War. The protests have reignited the tense debate since the Hamas attack in Israel on October 7, pitting freedom of expression against allegations of anti-Semitism.

Over the weekend, more than 350 people were arrested at several universities across the country and the Boston encampment was dismantled. At the University of Texas in Austin, a camp was also dismantled and a few people arrested. On Monday, police used pepper spray. “No encampments will be allowed,” conservative Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said on social media. Lawyer Paul Quinzi, who defends detained people in Austin, estimated for AFP “the number of arrests is at least eighty”, which “continue”.