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Professors Slam Columbia’s Response to Chemical Skunk Attack on Students at Pro-Palestine Protest

StoryJanuary 25, 2024
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Students at Columbia University in New York held an “emergency protest” Wednesday over the school’s response to an attack on members of Columbia University Apartheid Divest at a rally on campus last Friday. Police in New York are investigating the attack on pro-Palestinian students, who say they were sprayed with a foul-smelling chemical. Eight students were reportedly hospitalized, complaining of burning eyes, headaches, nausea and other symptoms. Organizers allege the attack was carried out by two students who are former members of the Israeli military, using a chemical weapon known as “skunk” that the Israeli military and security forces regularly deploy against Palestinians. The university responded to the attack by first scolding the organizers for holding an “unsanctioned” rally, then later said it had banned the suspects from campus while police investigate. This comes after Columbia administrators banned the local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace in November, with students describing a climate of censorship and retaliation for pro-Palestinian activism on campus. “Overall, it’s been a very clumsy handling,” Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani says of the school’s response to student protests and campus safety. We also speak with Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke, who says concerned faculty “have been spending an enormous amount of time protecting our students from the university itself.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Students at Columbia University here in New York held an “emergency protest” Wednesday over the school’s response to an attack on members of Columbia University Apartheid Divest at a rally on campus last Friday. Police are now investigating how pro-Palestinian students were sprayed with a hazardous, foul-smelling chemical at Friday’s protest, including members of Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Ceasefire. Eight students were reportedly hospitalized or seeking medical attention. Organizers allege the attack was carried out by two students who are former members of the Israeli military, the IDF, using a chemical weapon known as “skunk” that soldiers also deploy on Palestinians.

A Palestinian American student named Layla described the attack she says has left her traumatized, in an interview with the podcast The Robust Opposition.

LAYLA: I remember smelling this smell in the air, and it is just — it was just atrocious. I was like, “Oh my gosh! Like, it smells like somebody died. Like, what is this smell?” And then, at first, I was like, “OK, maybe I stepped in some dog poop. Like, maybe I’m just tired.” I tried to, like, kind of ignore it for a little bit.

But then, after the protest, when the protest was done, I just noticed how bad I felt. I felt so sick. I felt fatigued. I was nauseous. I had a really bad headache. And I was like, “Something is going on here. I’m not sure what, but something is going on here.” And then I was getting texts and calls from my friends. And they were like, “Did you smell that smell?” Or my friend was like, “Oh my gosh! I threw up like three times. Like, I don’t know what is wrong with me.” …

So, when this is used on Palestinians in the West Bank, like, for example, it’s been used on peaceful protesters there. It’s been used on shopkeepers and merchants. So, like, if a merchant gets their produce sprayed with skunk, they have to throw it all out, just because of how bad it stinks. …

It felt like for a while like the university, like, didn’t believe us. Like, I told them about it, and it’s like my concerns weren’t really being taken seriously. And it wasn’t until students started posting photos of themselves being hospitalized, and tagging the university, being, like, at Columbia, like we are — like, they started taking it seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Palestinian American Columbia University student Layla describing Friday’s attack on her, as well as other students who were part of a protest. No arrests have been made yet, but the school now says it’s banned the suspects from campus while law enforcement investigates.

For more, we’re joined by Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government at Columbia University who specializes in the study of colonialism. His books include Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities. His recent interview with The Nation is headlined “The Idea of the Nation-State Is Synonymous with Genocide.” And we’re joined by Katherine Franke, a Columbia Law School professor, member of the Center for Palestine Studies executive committee, on the board of Palestine Legal, helped write a new op-ed in the campus paper, the Columbia Spectator, headlined “Faculty and staff pledge to take back our University.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Franke, can you explain what happened, the skunking of the students, sprayed with this chemical? Do you know, does the university know, who these students were, where they came from? And have they been dealt with?

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, good morning, Amy.

So, the students were protesting in the main quad of the university last Friday. And we’ve had a series of protests. Our students are outraged at what’s going on, in our name and with our tax dollars, in Gaza. And while they were protesting — and, I will say, peacefully — last Friday, as your recording of Layla’s recounting of what happened, they all of the sudden smelled this horrible stench. And I’ve smelled skunk water when I’ve been in the West Bank at protests. It is horrible.

And what the students were able to do is examine video from that protest and identify, I think, three older students. We have a — Columbia has a program. It’s a graduate relationship with older students from other countries, including Israel. And it’s something that many of us were concerned about, because so many of those Israeli students, who then come to the Columbia campus, are coming right out of their military service. And they’ve been known to harass Palestinian and other students on our campus. And it’s something the university has not taken seriously in the past. But we’ve never seen anything like this. And the students were able to identify three of these exchange students, basically, from Israel, who had just come out of military service, who were spraying the pro-Palestinian students with this skunk water. And they were disguised in keffiyehs so that they could mix in with the students who were demanding that the university divest from companies that are supporting the occupation and the war, and were protesting and demanding a ceasefire. So we know who they were.

The university waited three or four days to actually even say anything about it. They have not reached out to the students who were sick, as you noted, some of whom are still in the hospital. I spoke to one student last night in the hopes that we could get one of them on your show this morning, and he was so mentally and physically disabled from this attack that he said, “I haven’t left my dorm room in a week.” So, our students are in terrible distress about this, both those who were sprayed and those who weren’t. There was another protest yesterday, and the students were actually quite afraid to come back onto the campus.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true that you’ve seen these students, the former IDF students, on campus? And what is the administration saying about that since the attack?

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, the university says that they have banned the three identified students from the campus. But I was told that one of them was there yesterday. Other students saw him. I don’t know that for sure, but several students said they saw one of them. You know, we have a fairly porous campus. To ban them from campus is something that they’d have to volunteer to comply with, except when there is a demonstration, when they lock — they’ve started locking the campus down in the last several months with gates, and you have to have your ID to get scanned to enter the campus. And then there’s a wall of NYPD. When I went to class yesterday, there were hundreds of NYPD officers, in uniform, lining our campus.

So, the university’s response has not been compassion, support for the students who were attacked. Instead, it’s been a militarization of our own campus and a further restraint on our students’ ability to protest peacefully, now turning to the excuse of this attack from those who support the Israeli government and the violence that’s being meted out towards Gazans as a kind of pretext to clamp down even further on peaceful protest by our other students.

AMY GOODMAN: Mahmood Mamdani, you have written about the situation in Gaza. You’ve spoken about it. There are now over 25,000 Palestinians who have been killed, over 11,000 of them children. The issue of hunger in Gaza is a very serious issue, raised by the U.N. and medical groups. You have that situation there and the solidarity expressed with the people in Palestine on college campuses. Can you talk about what’s happening at Columbia, and both staff, professors’, students’ feelings about whether they can express their views without being doxxed or attacked?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Thank you, Amy.

The situation at Columbia has been developing. It’s monitored by an administration which seem to have very little idea about what to do. At the same time, it had certain assumptions. The assumption was that the main problem at Columbia is antisemitism, and the administration should do everything to keep it in check and then to eradicate it.

When incidents like this, the chemical spraying, emerged, the administration’s first response was kind of disbelief. “Give us the facts.” Overall, it’s been a very clumsy handling. Different parts of the administration have different and sometimes conflicting initiatives. At the same time, they have a coherence. And the coherence is basically to shut things down and only to have an opening from the top, so no question of freedom of expression from below. That’s where we are now. Meanwhile, the community is convinced that the shots are being called by those who give the money.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how are you organizing, as a professor, with other professors, with students?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: I think the number of concerned professors is growing. We’re all convinced that the initiative must remain with the students. They are in the frontline. But also we’re convinced that we should offer whatever guidance we can offer. We meet and discuss. I personally have not been involved in face-to-face meetings much because of health issues. But I have been involved in meetings which are remote meetings. And it’s changing every day, and it’s developing.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Franke, last semester Columbia University, the new president at Columbia, suspended both SJP, Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as Jewish Voice for Peace for holding a so-called unauthorized event, a walkout and art display in support of a ceasefire in Gaza. So, what are these groups’ status right now? And also, you yourself have long been involved with issues around Palestine. In fact, Israel deported you. And explain why. This was before October 7th.

KATHERINE FRANKE: Well, my circumstances are much less acute than the circumstances of our students right now. You know, I’ve been part of the Barnard and Columbia community since the late '70s. I went to Barnard as an undergrad. And I've been at Columbia now as a professor for 25 years. Columbia’s campus has always been a place where students have engaged the most critical issues of the day. When I was there in the late '70s, it was issues around feminism and pornography and sexual rights. And later, there were things around the Iraq War and the invitation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the campus. You know, students, faculty have used the campus as a palette for learning about difficult issues — that's what we do at universities — for protesting or showing up for communities that are persecuted around the world.

And what we’ve seen this administration do since October 8th is kind of go to war against our students. I have never seen the university disband student groups for peaceful protest. We have scores, 30, 40, 50 complaints that the university has filed against students for violations of the disciplinary code or for organizing protests, based on their changing of the rules around how to have an event the night before the event, so that the students don’t even know that they’re violating some new event rule. The university said that SJP and JVP had to be suspended because they engaged in intimidating and threatening and antisemitic rhetoric. And then, in private meetings with them, they said, actually they didn’t, but they won’t retract that. So, that defamation of our students remains in the public and in the media and in the eyes and ears of our alums and of other students, but they won’t repudiate it.

And so, the students feel like they have nothing left that they can do, except protest against the university at this point. But Professor Mamdani and I and other faculty have been spending an enormous amount of time protecting our students from the university itself. Barnard students are being prosecuted for their social media posts and for hanging Palestinian flags outside of their dorm rooms, when New York City law specifically protects the hanging of flags outside of a dormitory. So, it feels like we’re under a kind of siege, too, at Columbia and at Barnard.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mamdani, before you were a professor at Columbia, you were a professor and director of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Tomorrow, the decision will come out of the International Court of Justice, an emergency decision on South Africa’s case, genocide case, against Israel. Your final comments?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, for those who read the South African application, it must be clear that its strong point was the content, the argument, the substance. The empirical material relied, drew totally from U.N. sources and from no other source, really. So it was unimpeachable.

The Israeli side, the Israeli lawyers did not say anything, did not present any defense on whether a genocide is unfolding. What they did defend was that, procedurally, South Africa should not be the party making an application.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mahmood Mamdani, we’re going to continue this discussion and post it online at democracynow.org. Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government at Columbia University, and Katherine Franke, Columbia Law School professor. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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