College Activists Rally for Amnesty to Prevent Arrests and Suspensions from Haunting Them

College Activists Rally for Amnesty to Prevent Arrests and Suspensions from Haunting Them

After riot police in New York City arrested Maryam Alwan and other protesters on the Columbia University campus, put them on buses, and held them for hours, she thought the worst was over.

However, the college junior got an email from the school the next evening. After being arrested at the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” Alwan and other students were suspended. This is a method that colleges across the country have used to stop rising protests against the war between Israel and Hamas on campus.

Protests are now mostly about the student’s plight, and more and more students and teachers want them to be released. The question is whether the universities and police will drop the charges and not do anything else, or whether the punishments and criminal records will follow the students into adulthood.

The length of the punishments varies from school to school. On April 18, Alwan and dozens of other people were arrested at Columbia University and its affiliated Barnard College for Women. They were then immediately banned from campus and classes, so they couldn’t go in person or online, and they weren’t allowed in the dining halls either.

There are still concerns about their chances in school. Will they be able to take the finals? What about help with money? Senior year? Columbia says that decisions about what will happen will be made at disciplinary meetings, but Alwan says she has not been given a date.

“This feels very dystopian,” Alwan, who is majoring in comparative literature and society, said.

What began at Columbia has grown into a national fight between students and school leaders over free speech and anti-war protests. Students at Yale University, the University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Minnesota have been arrested, suspended, put on probation, and in some cases, kicked out of college in the last 10 days.

According to interviews with students and reports from the Columbia Spectator school newspaper, which got its information from inside the university, Barnard, a liberal arts college for women at Columbia, kicked out and suspended more than 50 students who were arrested on April 18.

On Friday, Barnard said it had reached deals that would let “nearly all” of them back on campus. The college didn’t say how many, but it did say that all of the students whose bans were lifted had agreed to follow college rules and were sometimes put on probation.

A Barnard student named Maryam Iqbal posted a screenshot of a dean’s email on the social media site X on the night of the arrests. The email told Iqbal that she could quickly go back to her room with campus security before being kicked out.

The email said, “You have 15 minutes to get what you might need.”

Last week, more than 100 Barnard and Columbia faculty members held a “Rally to Support Our Students” to protest the arrests of students and demand that their bans be lifted.

Columbia University is still trying to get rid of the tent city on the main field of the campus, where graduation will be held on May 15. The students want the school to cut links with companies that do business with Israel and release students and teachers who were arrested or expelled because of the protests.

A spokesman for Columbia University, Ben Chang, said that talks with the student protesters are still going on. “We have our needs, and they have theirs,” he said.

Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal, said that foreign students who are facing suspension are also afraid of losing their visas. Palestine Legal helped a group of Columbia students file a federal civil rights complaint against the school on Thursday. It says that Columbia isn’t doing enough to stop discrimination against Palestinian students.

“The level of punishment isn’t just harsh; it feels like it’s cruel to the extreme,” Sainath said.

Last week, more than 40 students were held at a protest at Yale. Senior Craig Birckhead-Morton was one of them. Though he is set to graduate on May 20, he says the university has not yet told him if his case will be brought to the attention of a disciplinary panel. He’s not sure if he will get his diploma and if his chances of getting into Columbia graduate school are still good.

“The school has tried its best to ignore us and not tell us what’s going to happen next,” history major Birckhead-Morton said.

College officials all over the country have had a hard time finding a balance between free speech and welcoming everyone. At some protests, people have used hate speech, made racist threats, or shown support for Hamas, the group that attacked Israel on October 7 and started a war in Gaza that has killed more than 34,000 people.

May commencement events put more pressure on peaceful protests. Officials at the university say that arrests and bans are last resort and that protest areas are cleared well in advance.

The Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding says that Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has kicked out what are thought to be the only students for protesting the war between Israel and Hamas. On March 26, more than twenty students occupied the office of the university president for several hours. This caused the university to call the police, who arrested several protesters. Then Vanderbilt kicked out three students, suspended one, and put 22 protesters on probation.

More than 150 teachers at Vanderbilt wrote an open letter to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier calling the university’s crackdown “excessive and punitive.”

One of those who was kicked out, 19-year-old freshman Jack Petocz, is allowed to go to class while he files an appeal. He was kicked out of his apartment and is now living somewhere off campus.

Petocz said that protesting in high school helped him get into Vanderbilt and get an activist and organizer grant. In his college essay, he talked about planning walkouts in rural Florida to protest Gov. Ron DeSantis’ policies that hurt LGBTQ people.

Petocz said, “Vanderbilt seemed to love that.” “Unfortunately, when you start calling for Palestinian freedom, you’re responsible.”

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