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Outsiders Were Among Columbia Protesters, but They Dispute Instigating Clashes

One of the people arrested at Columbia University this week was a middle-aged saxophonist who was headed to campus from his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen after learning of the protests on social media.

Another was tending his pepper pot on the sidewalk a few blocks from the student protests when he learned the police were coming and, grabbing a metal dog bowl and a spoon to beat on, attacked himself. is rushed to the aid of the students.

A third had participated in other left-wing protests across the city, but also worked as a nanny nearby. She went to the university gates on Tuesday and locked arms with other protesters in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the officers’ advance, she said.

After pro-Palestinian protesters occupied a building on Columbia’s campus this week, demanding that the university end all financial ties with Israel, New York police moved in and arrested more than 100 people there. Mayor Eric Adams and other city leaders have accused so-called outside agitators — professional organizers with no ties to the university — of hijacking a peaceful student protest and inciting its participants to adopt tactics ever more aggressive.

“External professional actors are involved in these protests,” said Edward A. Caban, New York City Police Commissioner. “They are not affiliated with the institutions or campuses in question, and they are working to make the situation worse.”

A review of police records and interviews with dozens of people involved in the Columbia protest by The New York Times found that a small handful of the nearly three dozen people arrested who had no connection to the protest university had also participated in other protests across the country. A man who was arrested inside Hamilton Hall, the occupied campus building, had been charged with rioting and wearing a disguise to elude police during a California protest nearly a decade ago earlier.

But the review also found that a far greater number of unaffiliated protesters did not have such backgrounds. Rather, they said, they arrived in Columbia in response to word of mouth or social media posts to join the protest through a combination of solidarity and curiosity.

There was little evidence to suggest they helped organize or escalate the protests, and many were arrested without ever setting foot on campus. Among them, Matthew Cavalletto, a 52-year-old computer programmer who has lived less than a half-mile from Columbia for most of his life, was a case in point. Mr. Cavalletto, the gardener with the dog bowl, was arrested on the street outside Columbia after standing in the middle of the intersection and refusing to move. He rejected the idea that outsiders were pulling the strings.

“I kind of had to laugh because I guess I could be seen as an outside agitator,” Mr. Cavalletto said. “Not that far outside, about six blocks, but, you know, almost outside.”

City officials said 29 percent of people arrested in Columbia this week had no connection to the university. In a statement, a spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Adams said the arrest numbers “speak for themselves.”

“Ignoring these facts and blaming students solely for the escalating violence and hate speech would be both reckless and misleading, and unfair to the students who wanted to protest peacefully,” said Kayla Mamelak, the spokesperson.

Mr. Adams said even a small number of outsiders can inflame tensions and cause protests to turn violent. And as evidence of campus infiltration, he pointed to the presence on multiple occasions of a 63-year-old career activist, Lisa Fithian, and Nahla Al-Arian, the wife of a man accused of terrorism in Florida . nearly 20 years ago and whose daughter was a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School.

Ms Fithian, who wrote a book on protest tactics and charged money to organize demonstrations and teach techniques for taking to the streets, was filmed on Tuesday apparently urging counter-protesters to stand down so that Hamilton Hall can be barricaded. She denied playing a larger role in organizing the protests in Colombia.

Neither woman was present during Tuesday’s police searches.

Also present Tuesday — and arrested inside Hamilton Hall — was James Carlson, 40, the protester previously arrested in California. A lawyer, he was also accused of setting fire to an Israeli flag with a lighter during another protest outside the Columbia campus last month, according to court records. Mr. Carlson, an animal rights advocate, appears to have participated in a wide variety of protests over the years, including protests related to Black Lives Matter, immigration policy and environmental causes, according to posts on social networks.

His lawyer declined to comment. There was no indication that Mr. Carlson was involved in organizing or leading the protests in Columbia.

For their part, the student organizers of the protests and the arrested student participants disputed the idea that they had been manipulated by outside actors.

“I think these schools are quite scared in a way – and I think their escalation has reached a degree that shows they don’t have as many resources available other than, you know, some sort of militarized action “, said Val Ly. , a 30-year-old graduate student in Columbia’s architecture program who was arrested for disorderly conduct. “I want to make sure it’s very clear that there were no ‘external agitators,’ as far as I know, that were inside the building.”

Colombia is a national focal point in one of the largest student protest movements in decades. Tensions over the war in Gaza have sparked a wave of student activism, leading to the arrest or detention of more than 2,300 people on campuses across the country.

Protests against the Israeli offensive in Gaza have been brewing in Colombia for months. But the situation worsened on April 18, when university president Nemat Shafik called on police to enter the private campus and evacuate a pro-Palestinian encampment. More than 100 students were arrested.

Dr. Shafik’s decision led to more protests, both at Columbia and on campuses across the country. A new, larger encampment was established at Columbia. Less than two weeks after police initially cleared the encampment, a group of protesters, shortly after midnight, took over Hamilton Hall and barricaded themselves inside.

Later that day, police burst into the building through a second-story window and removed the protesters, making more than 100 arrests.

One of them was Rose Ceretto, a 27-year-old nanny who has lived in New York for a decade and asked to be identified by her middle name. She said she had no ties to Colombia, but worked nearby and had a long history of activism in New York. She said she had been arrested five times during other protests in recent years.

Ms. Ceretto said she cared deeply about the rising death toll in Gaza and went to campus to deliver supplies to students when the first tent encampments were built on the Columbia Lawn. She scoffed at the idea that she or others like her would share aggressive protest tactics with students.

At a news conference Thursday, Columbia Vice President for Communications Ben Chang said the numbers provided by the New York Police Department for those accused of occupying Hamilton Hall confirmed the expectations of Columbia leaders. the university that many participants had no connection to Columbia.

“A significant portion of those who broke the law and occupied Hamilton Hall were foreigners,” said Mr. Chang, who said the figures showed that 13 of the nearly four dozen people arrested during the takeover were foreigners. were not affiliated with Columbia.

But The Times’ review of police files revealed a slightly different picture, showing that only nine of those people had no apparent connection to the university. The others were current or former undergraduate or graduate students or university employees, the Times found. It’s unclear why the university’s numbers differ.

Overall, records show that more than two-thirds of protesters arrested this week on or near Columbia’s campus had a connection to the university.

Some, like Gregory Pflugfelder, a 64-year-old professor of Japanese history and gender studies in the Department of East Asian Languages ​​and Cultures, said they did not participate in the protests at all.

Mr. Pflugfelder was taking photos of the gathered police officers before the raid and did not return to his building when one of them told him to do so, he said.

“I am a historian of visual culture and recording historical events is very important to me,” he said, adding that he felt it was important for teachers to protect the rights of their students. “It was later reported to me that at least one of my students had seen me walking in the street handcuffed. I stood straight and walked straight.

As of Thursday evening, 46 people arrested inside Hamilton Hall had been brought to justice. They each faced a misdemeanor charge of trespassing, a spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said. At their arraignment, prosecutors said they could bring additional charges. They agreed that all those arrested should be released without bail.

The university said students who occupied the building would be evicted, and during a press briefing earlier this week, Chang said the university had begun suspending students who failed to comply with the rules. order to leave the camp.

The claim that outsiders were inciting locals to stage protests was a common refrain in past social movements and was leveled at protesters during the civil rights movement, according to Aldon Morris, professor emeritus of sociology and studies. black women at Northwestern University.

“The accusation of outside agitator is, in many ways, a move to delegitimize the protests and the protesters,” Mr. Morris said. “It’s a weapon that the police have at their disposal to manage demonstrations, to stop demonstrations, to quell them. »

Hell’s Kitchen saxophonist Daniel Pearson said he showed up at Columbia this week after responding to a call from pro-Palestinian groups on social media.

When police arrived and told protesters to disperse or face arrest, he shook arms with other protesters and stayed put.

He was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace – his first arrest during a protest, he said.

He called it outrageous that officials would use the label “outside agitator” to refer to “fellow New Yorkers in solidarity with the students.”

“This outside agitator,” he said, “is a third-generation New Yorker. »

Andrew Keh, Dana Rubinstein, Ginia Bellafante And Sharon Otterman reports contributed. Kirsten Noyes And Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.

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With a penchant for words, jack began writing at an early age. As editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper, he honed his skills telling impactful stories. Smith went on to study journalism at Columbia University, where he graduated top of his class. After interning at the New York Times, jack landed a role as a news writer. Over the past decade, he has covered major events like presidential elections and natural disasters. His ability to craft compelling narratives that capture the human experience has earned him acclaim. Though writing is his passion, jack also enjoys hiking, cooking and reading historical fiction in his free time. With an eye for detail and knack for storytelling, he continues making his mark at the forefront of journalism.
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