Columbia University Professor wanted to write down history. Law enforcement Arrested him outside of his house

Columbia University Professor wanted to write down history. Law enforcement Arrested him outside of his house

Gregory Pflugfelder had just finished Harvard’s last class of his career. For 28 years, he was a well-respected history professor at the university. One of his popular classes was about Japanese monsters, mostly Godzilla and “the role of the monstrous in the cultural imagination.”

His ignorance kept him from realizing that a culture monster was about to knock on his door.

The following Tuesday night, the pale-haired scholar, 64, left his off-campus apartment building, which was right next to Columbia. On his iPhone, he wanted to record video of hundreds of police reacting to historic student protests against Israel’s war in Gaza. His arrest by the NYPD came fifteen minutes later.

Documents received from the New York Police Department show that Pflugfelder was one of 112 people arrested at Columbia on Tuesday night. Still, Pflugfelder never came to school.

As anti-war protests and actions in Gaza have spread across U.S. campuses, colleges and police have increasingly blamed “outside agitators” and people who cause trouble off-campus as the group responsible for the unrest. On a charge of obstructing government operations, Pflugfelder was arrested. He is one of the first of 282 people arrested at or near Columbia and City College of New York during police raids. Authorities are being accused of using harsh methods to stop mostly calm protests against the Israel-Hamas war after the arrests.

Since he started teaching at Columbia in 1996, Pflugfelder has taught the same class every semester: Introduction to Japanese Civilization. He’s only taught at leading schools. He remembered that his plan for Tuesday was to do “nothing at all.” It included reading and watching the Hulu show “Shōgun.”

Late in the day, he heard protests close by, just around the corner from his West 114th Street flat. Directly across the street from his apartment building is campus, where protesters have been camping out for weeks asking for the university to cut ties with Israel.

He knew that the police were responding more strongly because of a protest at Columbia on April 18 where more than 100 people were held at a camp in the middle of campus. When protesters went to NYPD offices, police buses blocked Pflugfelder’s street.

He believed that students should be able to show. It was Columbia President Minouche Shafik who asked the NYPD to deal with the camp on campus after reading his letter. He had never written to the president’s office before. On April 23, he wrote, “I urge you not to compound the historic mistake you’ve made by repeating it.”

His thoughts were confirmed again on Tuesday of the following week, and he wanted to record it. On his way to take video on his iPhone, he left his apartment building.

About 9 p.m., he thought that hundreds of police officers wearing helmets and carrying batons had lined up on the street. He caught film of students being forced into dorms and fraternity houses and knocking on the windows. Later, he looked at the street, where police were lining up before their attack on campus.

The farthest he was from the curb, he said, was seven feet. He refused to go inside when the police told him to, saying that his house was about 300 feet down the block. Although they told him to leave, he insisted on keeping recording. Police told Pflugfelder, “Okay, put him down,” but he wasn’t actually put down. Nonetheless, he ended up cuffed in zip ties.

“I just stayed on my block, relatively well behaved,” he said. “Poorly located, unfortunately.”

He said he told the female police officer arresting him: “You’ve just arrested your first faculty member.” He said she responded, “This is for your protection.”

By Pflugfelder’s account, he was the third arrested person to enter an NYPD van. Ten people would fill the van that took him downtown. At 6-foot-5-inches, Pflugfelder said he felt cramped. He also has “claustrophobic tendencies,” and during the ride, he asked others to help him take his mind off his feelings, so they asked about his classes. He gathered during the ride that most people inside were Columbia students, based on the questions they asked.

At NYPD headquarters, he was in a holding cell with about 60 other men. He stayed there for about five hours. One person next to him on the bench said he was from Columbia and had been at Hamilton Hall, the occupied school building police raided using flash-bang grenades, and where police errantly fired a gunshot indoors. The man Pflugfelder saw was visibly bruised, including a black eye.

Police released Pflugfelder from custody at about 5 a.m. with a ticket to appear in Manhattan Criminal Court on May 20. He called an Uber and went home, though since has found it hard to rest. He’s hasn’t yet communicated with university administration. He’s not looking forward to it.

Pflugfelder has yet to have the relaxing day he’s sought after nearly three decades of teaching. In jail, police made him remove the shoelaces of his black and white Vessi sneakers. He’s kept them unlaced since then, as a reminder.

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