Pro-Palestinian students and activists gather at a protest encampment

Pro-Palestinian students and activists gather at a protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York City on April 25, 2024.

(Photo: Leonardo Munoz/AFP via Getty Images)

Columbia Students File Civil Rights Complaint After Arrests, National Guard Threat

"The violent repression we're facing as peaceful anti-war protesters is appalling."

A day after Columbia University officials warned it may call on the National Guard to remove nonviolent student protesters who have been occupying campus lawns since last week in solidarity with Gaza, advocacy group Palestine Legal on Thursday filed a federal civil rights complaint demanding an investigation into the school's "discriminatory treatment of Palestinian students and their allies."

The school discriminated against pro-Palestinian protesters last week when President Minouche Shafik summoned New York Police Department officers in riot gear to arrest more than 100 students, said Palestine Legal.

The complaint details how the escalation against students, who have set up an encampment on campus to demand Columbia divest from companies that work with the Israeli government and to support calls for a cease-fire in Gaza, is part of a monthslong pattern of the university's targeting of pro-Palestinian students.

According to Palestine Legal, students of all backgrounds who have demanded an end to Israel's U.S.-backed massacre of Palestinians in Gaza "have been the target of extreme anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and Islamophobic harassment, including receiving multiple death threats, being harassed for wearing keffiyehs or hijab, doxxed, stereotyped, being treated differently by high-ranking administrators including... Shafik, an attack with a chemical agent that led to at least 10 students requiring hospitalization and dozens of others, including a Palestinian student, seeking medical attention, and more."

Columbia student Maryam Alwan, who Palestine Legal is representing in the complaint to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, said the university has "utterly failed to protect [her] from racism and abuse."

"Beyond that, the university has also played a role in this repression by having me arrested and suspended for peacefully protesting Israel's genocide in Gaza," said Alwan. "The violent repression we're facing as peaceful anti-war protesters is appalling. Palestinian students at Columbia deserve justice and accountability, not only for Israel's decadeslong oppression and violence against our people, but for the racism and discrimination we've experienced here on Columbia's campus."

Palestine Legal is representing four students in the case, as well as Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, which was suspended from the campus late last year after holding anti-war protests.

The group called Columbia's threat to call in the National Guard "gravely concerning."

"Columbia's vicious crackdown on student protests calling for Palestinian freedom amidst an ongoing genocide should alarm us all. Students have always been at the forefront of the most pressing social issues of the day," said Palestine Legal staff attorney Sabiya Ahamed.

College campuses have been the sites of frequent pro-Palestinian protests since October, and the NYPD's crackdown on Columbia students last week galvanized students at universities across the country.

The Biden administration has said little about the student demonstrations, but President Joe Biden referred to them broadly as "antisemitic protests" this week.

"We urge federal civil rights officials to do what Columbia has disgracefully failed to," said Ahamed. "Ensure the rights of Palestinian and allied students are protected at a moment when their voices are most essential."

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