A March Across Manhattan’s Student Encampments

Hours before mass arrests at Columbia University and City College of New York (CCNY) late last night, April 30, a march organized by the Palestinian-led activist group Within Our Lifetime (WOL) made stops at New York University (NYU), the New School, and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where students are making history as they call for university divestment from Israeli military interests. 

Activists arrived at the New School around 4:15pm, followed by dozens of police officers on foot and motorcycles. Posters lined the windows of the university and its affiliate Parsons School of Design across the street. A handful of tents were set up on the other side of the glass inside the buildings’ lobbies, spaces the students passed through freely by swiping ID cards and walking through turnstiles moderated by campus security. 

A full day’s schedule was advertised on an encampment whiteboard, listing events such as “collective painting,” a poetry teach-in, and a faculty member’s lecture on the history of the keffiyeh. Near the back of the lobby, a desk offers pamphlets, publications, and artworks, some of them sourced from last weekend’s New York Art Book Fair. 

A central cardboard structure concealing a mattress was painted by a 25-year-old fine art and poetry student in their upstairs studio. A second-year student pointed to a large poster displayed throughout the building comprising three red poppies and the words “Free Palestine.” They had drawn it freehand with the help of a classmate in the Parsons Design Lab.

“I think the power of the artist — the student artist — is to envision a new world and actually embody it, in the way that we create,” the sophomore told Hyperallergic. (All students asked to remain anonymous for this story.)

Parsons and New School organizers demand the university’s divestment from 13 companies that they say are “complicit” in the ongoing attacks on Gaza through the production of weapons and surveillance technology. An 18-year-old global studies student told Hyperallergic that the school has threatened suspensions.

Parsons and the New School have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Around 14 blocks north, students at FIT created an encampment outside the student center that they dubbed the “People’s University.” A first-year undergraduate organizer for FIT’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group, which has spearheaded protests across the country, told Hyperallergic that between 50 and 60 students had just spent the night, a significant increase from the six who slept there when the camp was first set up.

The “People’s University” was decorated with hand-painted signs, banners, and sidewalk chalk with messages about liberating Palestine, condemning Zionism, and calling attention to FIT’s financial practices and crackdown on student protests. A member of the encampment’s art committee explained to Hyperallergic that “the core of being an artist is advocacy.” Among other demands, students want divestment, disclosure, and a “public condemnation of the Israeli apartheid and genocide.” 

At 3:25pm, the school’s administration sent a student-wide email indicating that the day’s remaining classes were canceled and that the school would suspend all campus operations for the rest of the evening.

An hour and a half later, WOL protesters arrived outside the “People’s University” equipped with banners, keffiyehs, flags, signs, and noisemakers. Hundreds of activists then made their way toward Moynihan Train Hall, funneled through a single revolving door, and rode the A train to 125th Street. By the time they reached Columbia, the campus had been barricaded by security and police, and hours later, 119 students were arrested after NYPD forcefully entered the occupied building.

The activists circled the campus before making their way up to CCNY on foot, halting traffic between 116th Street and 140th Street. They finally arrived at the CCNY encampment, which serves as the central solidarity space for all City University of New York (CUNY) institutions. Police arrested 173 students there.

Despite police force at Columbia and CCNY last night, student encampments are holding out across the country, and new sites — including one that opened today at Fordham University in the Bronx — are popping up. So far, two universities — Brown and Northwestern — have reached agreements with student protesters.

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