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College students, faculty demand amnesty for participating in anti-war protests

Maryam Alwan thought the worst was over after New York police in riot gear arrested her and other protesters on the Columbia University campus, put them on buses and took them detained for hours.

But the next evening, the college student received an email from the university. Alwan and other students were suspended after their arrest at the Solidarity camp in Gaza”, a tactic that universities across the country have deployed to quell growing campus protests against the war between Israel and Hamas.

The plight of the students has become a central focus of the protests, with students and a growing number of teachers demanding amnesty. The question is whether universities and law enforcement will expunge the charges and withhold other consequences, or whether suspensions and criminal records will follow students into their adult lives.

Suspension conditions vary from campus to campus. At Columbia and its affiliated Barnard College for Women, Alwan and dozens of others were arrested on April 18 and quickly barred from campus and classes, unable to attend in person or virtually, and banned from dining halls.

Questions remain about their academic future. Will they be allowed to take the final exams? What about financial aid? Graduation? Columbia says the outcomes will be decided at disciplinary hearings, but Alwan says she hasn’t been given a date.

“It seems very dystopian,” said Alwan, a specialist in comparative literature and society.

What began at Columbia grew into a nationwide confrontation between students and administrators over antiwar protests and the limits of free speech. Over the past 10 days, hundreds of students have been arrested, suspended, placed on probation and, in rare cases, expelled from universities including Yale University, the University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota.

Barnard, a women’s liberal arts college in Columbia, suspended more than 50 students who were arrested on April 18 and evicted them from campus housing, according to interviews with students and articles in the campus newspaper Columbia Spectator , which obtained internal campus documents.

On Friday, Barnard announced it had reached agreements restoring access to campus for “nearly all” of them. A statement from the college did not specify the number, but said all students whose suspensions were lifted agreed to follow the college’s rules and, in some cases, were placed on probation.

However, on the evening of the arrests, Maryam Iqbal, a student at Barnard, posted a screenshot on social media platform of an email from a dean telling her she could briefly return to her room with campus security before getting kicked out.

“You will have 15 minutes to gather what you may need,” the email said.

Protesters are handcuffed after being arrested on the campus of Emory University during a pro-Palestinian demonstration Thursday, April 25, 2024 in Atlanta.  (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Protesters are handcuffed after being arrested on the campus of Emory University during a pro-Palestinian demonstration Thursday, April 25, 2024 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

More than 100 professors from Barnard and Columbia held a “Rally in Support of Our Students” last week condemning the student arrests and demanding the suspensions be lifted.

Columbia continues to push to remove the tent encampment on the campus’s main lawn where graduation is scheduled to take place on May 15. Students demanded that the school end ties with Israel-linked companies and guarantee amnesty to students and faculty arrested or sanctioned in connection with the protests.

Talks with student protesters continue, said Ben Chang, a Columbia spokesman. “We have our demands; they have theirs,” he said.

For international students facing suspension, there is the added fear of losing their visas, said Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal, who helped a group of Colombian students file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school. He accuses Colombia of not doing enough to combat discrimination against Palestinian students.

“The level of punishment is not even just draconian, it looks like excessive insensitivity,” Sainath said.

More than 40 students were arrested during a protest at Yale last week, including Craig Birckhead-Morton. He is scheduled to graduate on May 20, but says the university has not yet told him whether his case will be referred to a disciplinary committee. He worries about whether he will graduate and whether his admission to graduate school at Columbia might be in jeopardy.

“The school did its best to ignore us and not tell us what would happen next,” said Birckhead-Morton, a history major.

Across the country, college administrators have struggled to balancing free speech and inclusiveness. Some protests have included hate speech, anti-Semitic threats or support for Hamas, the group that attacked Israel on October 7, sparking a war in Gaza that has left more than 34,000 dead.

Can opening ceremonies add pressure to clarify the protests. University officials say arrests and suspensions are a last resort and that they give ample warning in advance to clear protest areas.

Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has carried out what appears to be the only student expulsion linked to protests against the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to the Institute for Middle East Understanding. More than two dozen students occupied the office of the university chancellor for several hours on March 26, prompting the university to call police and arrest several protesters. Vanderbilt subsequently issued three expulsions, one suspension and placed 22 protesters on probation.

In an open letter to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, more than 150 Vanderbilt professors criticized the crackdown at the university, calling it “excessive and punitive.”

Freshman Jack Petocz, 19, one of those expelled, is allowed to attend classes while he appeals. He was kicked out of his dorm and lives off campus.

Petocz said protesting in high school was what helped him get into Vanderbilt and earn a merit scholarship for activists and organizers. His college essay focused on organizing walkouts in rural Florida to oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ policies.

“Vanderbilt seemed to like it,” Petocz said. “Unfortunately, the buck stops when you start advocating for Palestinian liberation. »


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