What to know about ‘outside agitators’ cops say are co-opting Columbia protests

Written by on May 1, 2024

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(NEW YORK) — Protests at Columbia University against the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza have been allegedly “co-opted” by what New York City police officials described as professional outside agitators bent on sowing chaos and violence.

Top police brass in New York said at a news conference Wednesday that protesters unaffiliated with Columbia University have been escalating violence.

“I know that there are those who are attempting to say, ‘Well, the majority of the people have been students.’ You don’t have to be the majority to influence and co-opt an operation. That’s what this is about,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

The mayor added, “We’re going to protect our city from those who are attempting to do what is happening globally. There is a movement to radicalize young people and I’m not going to wait until it’s done and all of a sudden acknowledge the existence of it.”

“These external actors are obviously not students and their presence on campus is a violation of Columbia’s clearly stated policy,” Adams said during a press briefing Tuesday. “This is to serve their own agenda. They are not here to promote peace or unity or allow the peaceful displaying of one voice. But they’re here to create discord and divisiveness.”

On Tuesday night, police arrested nearly 300 people at Columbia University, and at City College of New York in Harlem, the latter where Adams said officers had bottles and garbage cans thrown at them as they moved in to make arrests.

The mayor said demonstrators who occupied Columbia’s Hamilton Hall were guided by people who have no connection to Columbia University. He further said those arrested were at the time still being processed by police, who were determining who is a student and who is not.

The arrests at Columbia and CCNY Harlem came hours after Rebecca Weiner, the NYPD deputy commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism, said officers have observed outsiders on campus with whom they are familiar from other protests staged in the city over the years.

Without identifying them, Weiner said some of the alleged demonstrators unaffiliated with Columbia were active in the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, the 2020 so-called “autonomous zone” protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota following the police killing of George Floyd, and the ongoing Stop Cop City demonstrations opposing a police training facility in Atlanta.

“These protests have been and are being influenced by external actors who are unaffiliated with the universities, some of whom have been known to our department and others for many years for their dangerous, disruptive and criminal activity associated with protests for years,” Weiner said during Tuesday’s briefing. “So, this is not about what’s happening overseas, it’s not about the last seven months. It’s about a commitment to, at times, violent protest activity as an occupation.”

Weiner said officers observed the alleged outside agitators on campus at Columbia teaching students, who have been conducting mostly peaceful pro-Palestinian protests, aggressive tactics that she said were used in the takeover of Hamilton Hall.

Weiner played a two-minute video showing individuals dressed in black breaking into windows at the Hamilton Hall academic building, and others dragging metal barricades into the building to use to help block entrances and exits. She said the alleged agitators taught students to use de-arresting tactics, and encouraged them to destroy property and to fortify protest signs for use as shields. Another tactic Weiner said protestors used was chaining themselves together to block access to Hamilton Hall.

“Cameras have been destroyed and there’s only one reason to destroy a camera. It’s certainly not something anyone is taught at school,” Weiner said.

She added, “We think these tactics are a result of guidance that’s being given to students from some of these actors.”

Protesters allegedly unaffiliated with Columbia who were removed from Hamilton Hall and arrested are facing charges of trespassing, destruction of property, vandalism, and criminal mischief, according to police officials.

New York Police Commissioner Edward Caban said the more aggressive tactics being deployed by protesters are “endangering public safety.”

“These once-peaceful protests are being exploited by professional outside agitators and the safety of all students, faculty and staff are now a concern,” Caban said at Tuesday’s briefing.

He said Columbia University is private property, and so “decisions on what to do on that property are up to the university.”

On Tuesday, Columbia officials asked the NYPD to come on campus and clear Hamilton Hall of the demonstrators, Adams said Wednesday, adding that university officials acknowledged that “outside agitators were on their grounds training and really co-opting this movement.”

Other U.S. colleges have also alleged that outside agitators have infiltrated student protests. At the University of Texas in Austin, officials said 45 of the 79 people arrested on campus Monday had no affiliation with the university.

“These numbers validate our concern that much of the disruption on campus over the past week has been orchestrated by people from outside the University, including groups with ties to escalating protests at other universities around the country,” University of Texas officials said in a statement. “To date, from protesters, weapons have been confiscated in the form of guns, buckets of large rocks, bricks, steel-enforced wood planks, mallets, and chains.

“Staff have been physically assaulted and threatened, and police have been headbutted and hit with horse excrement, while their police cars have had tires slashed with knives,” the statement also said. “This is calculated, intentional and, we believe, orchestrated, and led by those outside our university community.”

“We will continue to safeguard the free speech and assembly rights of everyone on our campus, while we protect our University and students, who are preparing for their final exams,” the statement concluded.

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