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Columbia protesters take over building after defying deadline

Pro-Palestine demonstrators at Columbia University have occupied an academic building as part of their protest over the war in Gaza.

Dozens of activists seized Hamilton Hall early on Tuesday and barricaded themselves inside.

The university and police are yet to comment.

Columbia earlier began suspending students involved in a two-week encampment who defied a deadline to disperse.

Students were warned they would face disciplinary action if they failed to move by 14:00 EST (18:00 GMT) on Monday.

But as the deadline passed, dozens of students rallied at the site.

Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), one of the main protest groups, vowed to defy the order in a post on X, and called on activists to “protect the encampment”.

The group later said it had taken over Hamilton Hall, highlighting that the venue was also the focus of student protests in 1968.

Images from the site on Tuesday show the building with broken windows. Protesters blocked doors with wooden tables and chairs, the Columbia Spectator reported.

Another group, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD), said it had “reclaimed” the building in honour of Hind Rajab, a six-year-old girl found dead in Gaza earlier this year.

Similar demonstrations against the war in Gaza have taken place across the US in recent weeks since police cleared an earlier encampment at Columbia.

On Monday, police also arrested dozens of protesters and dismantled their camp at the University of Texas at Austin.

Officials there said protesters had ignored directions to take down their tents and that “baseball-size rocks” had been found in the encampment.

The BBC has contacted the university and local police for comment.

Activists across the US are demanding that their universities, many with massive endowments, financially divest from Israel. Divestment means to sell or otherwise drop financial ties.

Pressure on the leadership of Columbia, an elite Ivy League university in Upper Manhattan, to act, or step aside, has been building.

Posting on X before the occupation of Hamilton Hall, US House Speaker Mike Johnson labelled the scenes at Columbia an “utter disgrace”. He added: “The campus is being overrun by antisemitic students and faculty alike.”

The Louisiana Republican again called for the university’s president, Dr Minouche Shafik, to step down.

Columbia’s campus has become the focal point of the country’s debate over the war in Gaza and US support for Israel, as well as fears that antisemitism is putting Jewish students in danger.

Earlier on Monday, a group of House Democrats urged its board of trustees to resign if it could not “act decisively, disband the encampment, and ensure the safety and security of all of its students”.

“For the past week, this encampment has been the breeding ground for antisemitic attacks on Jewish students,” the 21 lawmakers wrote. “The time for negotiation is over; the time for action is now.”

Annual tuition and fees for Columbia add up to around $90,000 (£72,000) for undergraduates, making it one of the most expensive universities in the US.

On 18 April, police raided a pro-Palestine encampment on the centre of campus and arrested more than 100 students.

But activists redoubled their efforts, regrouping in another encampment and prompting university leadership to move to hybrid learning.

A statement from Dr Shafik on Monday said talks between academic leaders and student organisers had failed to result in the take-down of the encampment.

She also reiterated that, while Columbia planned to explore a range of ideas to address student concerns, it “will not divest from Israel”.

Several hours after Monday’s deadline passed for students to take down their camp, the university’s vice-president of public affairs said they had begun suspending students – temporarily barring them from campus, with those scheduled to graduate no longer eligible to do so.

University officials have said the suspensions are being imposed, in part, to avoid any disruption to graduation ceremonies on 15 May.

As the afternoon deadline came and went, the cluster of tents on the Morningside campus remained in place.

Student supporters marched around the site, some banging drums and chanting: “Revolution!”

Mahmoud Khalil, one of the students who has been negotiating with Columbia officials, told the BBC that protesters believed it was “highly probable” that police would again be called in to clear the encampment.

“The students are here,” added Mr Khalil, who said he was a Palestinian refugee who grew up in Syria. “They are holding their ground.”

Many wore face coverings, telling the BBC they were worried about being recognised and facing recrimination.

But the university wrote in its letter on Monday that it had already identified several participants.

The BBC is tracking protests or encampments on campuses in at least 22 other states and Washington DC. They have also been reported in Canada and Australia.

Among the other places where arrests were made on Monday were the University of Georgia.

Meanwhile, at Cornell University in upstate New York, a “first set of immediate temporary suspensions” were given out, the college said, in a statement.

And at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) tensions remained high after rival groups clashed when a barrier separating them was breached.

Amid alleged incidents of hate speech, harassment and threats of violence by some participants, Jewish students on numerous campuses have voiced concern about their safety.

“The world is watching as you continue to fail your Jewish students,” congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, said, as she accused Columbia of “empty threats and weak leadership”.

Other Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have highlighted antisemitic chants and incidents at the protests.

The White House is walking an increasingly fine line over the campus protests, seeking to balance the right to peaceful protest with condemnation of hate speech.

“It is a painful moment, we get that,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Declining to say how university leadership should act, she added: “Free expression has to be done within the law.”

bbc

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