Columbia Uni. investigates chemical attack at pro-Palestinian protest

Staff and students demonstrate outside Columbia University Low Library in New York, on Nov. 15, 2023. Columbia University and the New York Police Department are investigating reports that pro-Palestinian student demonstrators were sprayed with a foul-smelling chemical during an event last week. (Photo: Bing Guan/The New York Times)
NEW YORK — Columbia University and the New York Police Department (NYPD) are investigating reports that pro-Palestinian student demonstrators were sprayed with a foul-smelling chemical during an event last week, leading the university on Monday to bar the people accused from campus.اضافة اعلان

In a statement emailed to all Columbia and Barnard College students and faculty members Monday night, Dennis Mitchell, the university’s interim provost, said the individuals had been barred while the NYPD investigated “what appears to have been serious crimes, possibly hate crimes.”

He called the events at the protest, on the steps of Low Library, “deeply troubling” and added that the university condemned “in the strongest possible terms any threats or acts of violence” directed toward its community members.

A spokesperson for the NYPD said that there had been no arrests and that an investigation was continuing.

The Columbia statement did not say how many people had been barred from campus or whether they were students. It did not specify what substance had been sprayed on the protesters, what had led to the incident, or whether anyone had required medical care.

Since the Israel war on Gaza began in October 2023, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrations have saturated Columbia and other American college campuses. While the demonstrations have largely been peaceful, some acts have crossed the line into harassment or violence.

Pro-Palestinian students at Columbia have been threatened online, and their faces and names have been displayed on a truck, funded by an outside group, that labeled them anti-Semites.

In November, seeking to reduce tensions on campus, the president of Columbia, Minouche Shafik, suspended two pro-Palestinian student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The university said that the groups had violated student event rules by repeatedly failing to ask for permission well before protesting. The groups pushed back, calling the rules unjust, and entered a coalition that continued organizing protests under different banners.

A Columbia University official said that Friday’s events had been unsanctioned and had violated the university’s policies.

According to a Barnard student who was at the protest Friday, people from the two suspended groups were involved in the Low Library demonstration and were protesting peacefully when at least two men sprayed them with a foul-smelling liquid.

“Halfway through the protest, we started smelling this horrible smell,” said Maryam Iqbal, an 18-year-old freshman at Barnard. “I can only describe it as raw sewage and dead mouse.”

Layla Saliba, a 24-year-old Palestinian-American graduate student at Columbia’s School of Social Work, said that two men, whom she did not recognize, looked as if they had wanted a confrontation and called some of the protesters “terrorists.” She added that they had seemed “especially aggressive” toward students holding up signs saying “Jews for cease-fire” and called them “self-hating Jews.”

She said Monday that she was continuing to vomit and still smelled the odor on her clothes and hair, even after nearly a dozen showers.

On Sunday, Iqbal said she had reported the incident to Columbia’s public safety department and had shown personnel there a jacket she was wearing during the protest as evidence. But she said that when she smelled the jacket, she had become sick to her stomach and was treated for nausea at a hospital.

In its statement, Columbia asked anyone who had photos, videos, or other evidence of the event to share it with the NYPD.

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