Columbia Scolds Students for “Unsanctioned” Gaza Rally Where They Were Attacked With Chemicals

Administrators at Columbia University responded to reports of students being injured by a chemical attack against an on-campus rally for Gaza by chiding students for holding protests without official authorization. Meanwhile, students told The Intercept that even as the school’s public safety department has said it is investigating the incident, school administrators themselves have yet to contact the victims — some of whom have had to seek medical care for their injuries. 

During a rally on Friday, according to attendees, two individuals sprayed a hazardous chemical that released an odious smell. Dozens of students have reported an array of symptoms, such as burning eyes, nausea, headaches, abdominal and chest pain, and vomiting.

The campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine publicized the incident on Saturday morning, identifying the substance as “skunk,” a chemical weapon used by the Israel Defense Forces against Palestinians and one that U.S. police departments have reportedly acquired in the past. SJP also alleged that the assailants have ties to the Israel Defense Forces, a claim that The Intercept could not independently confirm.

In a statement to The Intercept, a university spokesperson seemed to blame the students for the attack. “Friday’s event was unsanctioned and violated university policies and procedures which are in place to ensure there is adequate personnel on the ground to keep our community safe,” the spokesperson wrote.

The incident marks the latest escalation against students protesting for Palestinian rights at Columbia. Last semester, the university suspended the student groups Jewish Voice for Peace, or JVP, and SJP for holding an “unauthorized event” (a walkout and art display in support of a ceasefire). More broadly, students at campuses across the country have been met with university discipline and even criminal charges as they have called for their universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel’s military — or at least for their universities to have public meetings about their investments.

Public officials have devoted extensive resources to discussing reports of antisemitism on university campuses, including in a headline-grabbing congressional hearing. The repression of student protests for Gaza has gotten comparatively little attention, not to mention abject acts of violence, including the stabbing of a 6-year-old boy in suburban Chicago and shooting of three Palestinian students in Vermont. 

Rashid Khalidi, a renowned Palestinian American historian who teaches at Columbia, said that university administrators should respect the student protesters’ motivations. “For a lot of young people, this is one of the most significant events, worst humanitarian crises, certainly in their lifetimes,” said Khalidi. “And many of them have a strong sense of justice and see injustice. I think university administrators — whatever alumni and whatever donors and whatever trustees are telling them, and whatever the politicians are saying, and whatever the media bias leans towards — I think they have to respect that that’s what’s driving a lot of these students: a strong sense of injustice.”

On Monday morning, interim university provost Dennis Mitchell sent a campus-wide email that did not reference the attack but seemed to be in response to it. Mitchell noted that placing someone in, or risking, bodily harm is a violation of school rules, while also describing school rules around unauthorized protests. “Columbia University is committed to defending the right of all members of our community to safely exercise their right to expression and to invite, listen to, and challenge views, including those that may be offensive and even hurtful to many of us,” he wrote. 

The message followed a vague Sunday night statement from the school’s Department of Public Safety, which is investigating the attack after receiving reports from students. The department noted that it is working with local and federal authorities, with the New York Police Department taking the lead. The NYPD and the Department of Public Safety did not respond to requests for comment. 

“This message does not even mention that a hazardous illegal chemical was sprayed, let alone that a hate crime occurred,” Maryam Alwan, a member of SJP, told The Intercept.

On Friday, Columbia students gathered on the steps of Low Library in below-freezing temperatures and snow flurries to demonstrate at a “divestment now” rally, organized by Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a coalition of 94 student groups that was revived after SJP and JVP were banned. They called for financial transparency from the university, which has a $14 billion endowment, working to mobilize students for a tuition strike to push the administration to divest from companies implicated in Israel’s occupation of Palestine and retaliatory war on Gaza. (Students at Columbia College and at Barnard College voted in favor of divestment from Israel in recent years; both efforts were dismissed by the administration.)

At the protest, some Jewish students raised a banner that read “CU Jews for ceasefire.” They were approached by two individuals who called them “traitors” and “self-hating Jews,” according to Layla, a student who asked The Intercept to identify her only by her first name due to safety concerns.

“They kept on going up and harassing people. They were filming people, they were calling people Jew killers,” Layla said. “They were also referring to people as terrorists. And they really did not like my Jewish friends in particular.”

“NYPD hasn’t made any arrests, even though we have multiple witnesses. It’s been a nightmare.”

According to students, the people who were harassing the protesters were the same ones who later sprayed the chemical. “I’ve been having to look stuff up on Reddit to figure out what’s going on. [The university] didn’t even tell us, like, ‘Oh, we should go to urgent care or anything,’” Layla said. “We were the ones that figured it out. We were the ones — I actually took the photos of the people and helped identify them. They haven’t done anything. NYPD hasn’t made any arrests, even though we have multiple witnesses. It’s been a nightmare.”

Suffering from nausea and fatigue, Layla went to urgent care over the weekend. She said she attended the protest to honor the memory of 14 of her family members who were killed by Israeli bombings on Gaza. “I wanted to attend this protest as a way to honor their memory and just to fight for the human rights of Palestinians. And I just — I never imagined it would end up this way at all. It still feels like a nightmare. And I remember there was just this mist in the air. And I remember just thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, like, it smells like somebody died.’”

Skunk is notorious for its intense side effects. “Skunk is liable to cause physical harm, such as intense nausea, vomiting and skin rashes, in addition to any injury resulting from the powerful force of the spray,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz once reported. “Examinations by police and army medical teams in the past also indicated that the excessive coughing caused by exposure can result in suffocation.”

Layla said her account of the incident was met with skepticism by the NYPD, who asked that if the weapon was as serious as she said, why she did not go to the hospital right away. The lack of clear police action has left her and others feeling uneasy. “I don’t really feel safe, frankly, going back on campus. I’m supposed to go back on campus today to report to public safety and go to campus health, but my body — like when I went on Saturday after it happened, my body physically recoiled at being on campus.”

Another student who is involved with JVP and requested anonymity out of safety concerns told The Intercept that while campus public safety seemed sympathetic and receptive, the NYPD investigators they spoke with were less interested.

“The frustrating part was that they seemed to not really care about what evidence we did have because no one actually saw them holding the spray canisters and using them,” the student told The Intercept. Even after another student told NYPD investigators that they saw one of the alleged perpetrators holding an object and heard a spraying sound before smelling the odor, that did not seem to be enough.

“They kept saying ‘so none of you ACTUALLY witnessed the crime?’” said the student, who is still suffering from headaches and nausea three days later. She said that she’s been unable to get the smell out of her clothes, including a coat her grandmother handed down to her before she died.

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