The 24 Hours That Shook Columbia University

Credit: Mukta Joshi

Credit: Mukta Joshi

Editor’s note: Authors: Oishika Neogi with students of the Stabile Class of 2024.

Photos and videos contributed by Zirui Yang, Yeonseung Kim, Gabriela Henriquez, Mukta Joshi, Samaa Khullar, Khadija Alam, Natasha Bracken, and Carli Koojiman.

Fact-checking by Curtis Brodner, Khadija Alam, Alec Rich and Mukta Joshi.

For weeks, the world watched as students stood their ground, demanding that Columbia University divest from Israel while the university leadership wobbled between negotiating with, or punishing, them. The impasse ended at around 9:15 PM on Tuesday, April 30, when, at the university’s behest, hundreds of police officers in riot gear marched into the campus.

This is an hour-by-hour account of what happened on that day, based almost entirely on photographs and video taken by Columbia Journalism School students. We used the timestamps of the videos and photos we had shot with our cameras and mobile phones to create this timeline. We begin in the wee hours, when student protesters took over Hamilton Hall, the building where many classes are held and where the dean of Columbia College holds office.

This was not the first student occupation and police operation in Columbia’s history. On the same day in 1968, university administrators had summoned 1,000 police officers to end the occupation by students of several buildings on campus, including Hamilton Hall. The students were protesting the university’s connections to the Vietnam War and its encroachment into Harlem. Seven hundred of them were arrested in the violent police sweep. In April 1985, students occupied Hamilton for three weeks, demanding that the university divest from South Africa.

This April, protesters were conscious of this storied past. “We are on the right side of history,” said a student speaking in front of Hamilton Hall before the NYPD descended on the campus, stormed the hall, and arrested over 100 protesters.

Some context: On April 17, students set up a “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on the West Lawn of the university quad. The following day, the university called in the police, who cleared the encampment and arrested 109 students. Undeterred, the protesters set up another encampment that same day, this time on the South Lawn. This time, the university allowed the encampment and began negotiations with student leaders. But the talks broke down on April 28, when students refused the university’s offer to study their divestment proposal. They wanted nothing less than a promise to divest.

Soon after the talks ended, Minouche Shafik, the university president, urged the protesters to dismantle their encampment. They either leave voluntarily, she said, or face suspension. On Monday, April 29, the university distributed leaflets at the encampment, saying it had set a deadline of 2 PM that day for the students to disperse.

By then, the encampment had around 90 tents and had been up for nearly 14 days. Protesters refused to budge. When the deadline had passed, they knew it was only a matter of hours before the police would be called in. In the afternoon and evening, faculty and staff gathered on the quad to support the students. Late into the night of April 29, hundreds were still marching on the quad, chanting, “Disclose, Divest, We will not stop. We will not rest.”

Our account begins on the first hour of April 30, just minutes after midnight, when protesters’ chants were reverberating around the campus and about a hundred demonstrators made their way to Hamilton Hall.

Below, you will find links to videos, documents, and images — all produced that help tell the story.

  • 12:34 AM: Amid cheering and chanting, protesters smash the glass door of Hamilton Hall with hammers and enter the building. They block the entrance with classroom chairs and the heavy metal tables standing outside the hall.

At the same time, hundreds of students supported by university staff and their union, the United Auto Workers, are marching around the campus sundial, a short distance from Hamilton Hall, chanting “Disclose, divest—we will not stop, we will not rest.”

  • 1:53 AM: Protesters who had taken over Hamilton Hall stand beside a white banner with Hind’s Hall written in red paint that they had dropped from a balcony about 15 minutes earlier. One of them looks out from the balcony and speaks through a megaphone to a small crowd that had gathered outside the building. She asks the crowd to repeat after her, phrase by phrase, of the sentence, “This building is liberated in honor of Hind, a six-year-old Palestinian child murdered in Gaza by the Israeli occupation forces funded by Columbia University.” In 1985, anti-apartheid protesters who had taken over Hamilton Hall renamed it Mandela Hall, after the South African resistance leader.
  • 2:06 AM: Protesters who had started to gather outside the 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue campus gate chant to show solidarity with the occupation of Hamilton Hall. A handful of NYPD officers keeps close watch.
  • 4:34 AM: The university’s Emergency Management Operations Team issues an advisory, announcing the occupation of Hamilton Hall and asking members of the Columbia community to avoid coming to the Morningside campus.
  • 6:16 AM: The Emergency Management Operations Team releases another notice, saying that “effective immediately,” access to the Morningside campus is restricted. Only students living in the residential buildings inside the campus and essential services employees are allowed on the premises.
  • 8:51 AM: Students, faculty members, and reporters stand outside the campus gate on Amsterdam Avenue — no one is allowed entry. “Only essential workers can go in,” says the security stationed outside the gate. The campus is mostly quiet for the next five hours. Hardly anyone is there, except for the protesters, dorm residents, and student journalists.
  • 12:41 PM: Media workers wait outside the campus gate, still barred from campus.
  • 12:55 PM, Columbia University spokesperson Ben Chang releases a campus update. “We regret that protesters have chosen to escalate the situation through their actions,” it read. “Students occupying the building face expulsion.”
  • 2:00 PM: Some reporters are allowed to enter the Columbia campus; others remain outside. Only ABC TV, CNN, New York 1, the Associated Press, Getty, the New York Times, and the New York Daily News are let in.
  • 2:50 PM: Protesters outside Hamilton Hall make speeches and address reporters gathered there. “Lift the siege on Columbia now,” they say. One of them tells the story of Hind Rajab, the Palestinian child after whom they had renamed Hamilton Hall.
  • 3:17 PM: Some protesters move from Hamilton Hall to the West 116th and Amsterdam Avenue entrance. “Say it clear and say it loud—Gaza, you make us proud,” they chant, as reporters standing outside the gate film them.
  • 5:40 PM: Chang, the university spokesperson, hosts a press briefing, saying Columbia was limiting press access to the campus. “This is about responding to the actions of the protesters, not their cause,” he said.
  • 6:07 PM: Police take down steel barriers from a truck and carry them to the corner of West 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. They barricade and shut down the length of 114th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway.
  • 7:17 PM: The police put up additional metal barriers to block off the intersection of West 116th Street and Broadway, where the main entrance to the campus is located. Some of those barriers had been there for days. The police position themselves on the length of Broadway fronting the campus.
  • 7:36 PM: Four protesters hang a banner reading “While you read, Gaza bleeds” in red paint, from the balcony of Hamilton Hall facing College Walk.
  • 7:47 PM: A phalanx of police officers march down Broadway, near West 113th Street, on their way to the Columbia campus.
  • 8:00 PM: Anticipating an imminent police raid, protesters outside Hamilton Hall link arms and sing, “Where you go I’ll go, my friends. Where you go I’ll go.” By then, most, if not all, the protesters had left the encampment and were either inside Hamilton or demonstrating outside the hall. A handful stationed themselves on College Walk, near the West 116th and Amsterdam Avenue gate, where they make speeches and chant slogans. Outside the gate, scores of protesters are also chanting slogans and beating drums, as police presence grows.
  • 8:16 PM: All members of the Columbia community receive a text message from the university administration to “shelter in place for safety due to heightened activity on Morningside campus. Non-compliance may result in discipline.”
  • 9:07 PM: Members of the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit stand in formation on Amsterdam Avenue, near the Columbia gate, as demonstrators outside the gate continue with loud protests.The police officers are in riot gear and carry zip ties; they add to the numbers of officers who have already been in the area for a few hours. By now, the campus is surrounded by hundreds of NYPD officers on the east (Amsterdam Avenue), west (Broadway), and south (West 114th Street). The campus is completely sealed off.
  • 9:11 PM: Anti-riot police march in formation as they enter the campus through the John Jay gate on West 114th, just south of Hamilton Hall. They order student journalists to stand aside as they move in.
  • 9:13 PM: Police, in riot gear, march towards Hamilton Hall as protesters outside the hall and outside the campus gates chant, “Disclose, divest. We will not stop. We will not rest.”
  • 9:15 PM: Police officers order student journalists and other onlookers to move away from Hamilton Hall and lead them toward College Walk. Other police officers stand in front of the steps between College Walk and Hamilton Hall, stopping journalists from going through. Other student journalists are pushed towards the John Jay dormitory. At least two officers order them to “get in the building or leave the premises.”Meanwhile, police begin arresting protesters outside the West 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue gate. The police slam the demonstrators against the gates and wrestle them to the ground.
  • 9:23 PM: While some of the student journalists remain locked inside the John Jay compound, NYPD officers escort about a dozen members of the student press out of the campus through the Carman gate on West 114th. “Let’s go, keep walking!” the officers yell. They can re-enter campus through the West 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue gate, the journalists are told. (They were able to return to the campus only three hours later, after a journalism school professor convinced the NYPD to let them back in.)
  • 9:25 PM: A large number of police officers swarm the abandoned encampment and inspect the tents. Students in the dorms nearby watch from their windows.
  • 9:26 PM: The Emergency Services Unit of the NYPD reaches Hamilton Hall, as protesters link arms outside the Hall, singing “We demand divestment; we shall not be moved.” A seven minute-long piece of body-camera footage, uploaded on Vimeo, shows officers shoving aside the metal tables and trash bins that blocked the Hall entrance. They push aside the protesters standing outside the entryway and make their way into the building. All journalists had been cleared from the area, so only police video is available to record the police breaching and entering Hamilton Hall.

More police officers simultaneously enter the campus from the Amsterdam gate and the Carman and John Jay gates on West 114th Street.

On 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, officers enter through a window on the second floor of Hamilton Hall by using a ladder mounted on a mine-resistant armored vehicle. Protesters outside the Amsterdam gate jeer at the police and chant, “Free, Free Palestine!”

Other officers already stationed inside campus enter Hamilton through a back door.

  • 9:28 PM: Policemen use Halligan bars, spreaders, pry bars, buzz saws and S-789 E3 cutters to break into the windows and front doors of Hamilton Hall, as shown in body-cam footage from the NYPD Emergency Services Unit. They go up to the second floor and cut through the metal chains that had been wrapped around a stack of tables, chairs, and ladders blocking entry to the room where the protesters had gathered.
  • 9:32 PM: At least eight flash bangs explode as the police prepare to enter the room where the protesters had been holed up. They yell at the protesters who are standing up, “Stay on ground!” Some protesters fall down, and the others sit on the floor, linking arms. Loud chants of “Free, Free Palestine!” are heard in the background, as officers scour the Hall. All this is recorded on police body-cam footage.(Two days later, the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, said that a police officer had fired a gun inside Hamilton Hall. It is unclear what time this occurred. In a May 3 press briefing, the Emergency Service Unit chief, Carlos Valdez, said an unnamed sergeant was transferring his weapon from his dominant to his non-dominant hand and accidentally fired it.)
  • 9:34 PM: More police march toward Hamilton Hall as protesters on College Walk shout, “Imperialism will fall! Zionism will fall!”
  • 9:37 PM: Students arrested in and around Hamilton Hall are led away by the NYPD. Sympathizers in the dorms chant, “Columbia, back down!”
  • 9:38 PM: Off-campus, near the corner of 114th and Amsterdam, an NYPD officer takes a photo of a protester the police had arrested, before escorting him to the police bus. Nearby, demonstrators shout, “Shame on you! Shame on you!” at the police. Those arrested are loaded on a bus that takes them to the police station.
  • 9:47 PM: Inside the campus, police stand next to a handful of protesters on College Walk who chant, “Israel bombs, Columbia pays. How many kids did you kill today?”
  • 10:25 PM: Police drive out everyone, mostly student journalists, from the quad. The police tail the student journalists as they run toward Pulitzer Hall, the Journalism School building. Police tell students and journalism faculty waiting in the lobby, including the dean, to stay inside or risk arrest.
  • 11:12 PM: White vans are parked on college walk after a police canine unit inspected the encampment tents. Later, police and private contractors clear the encampment, loading tents and other belongings onto the vans.
  • 11:49 PM: The Columbia community receives yet another campus alert. “Heightened activity on Morningside campus concluded,” it read. “Area is all clear at this time.”
  • 1:47 AM: The encampment is fully dismantled, with the debris collected in garbage bags, which are loaded onto a bright red trash compactor truck.
  • By 3 AM on May 1, the South Lawn is empty. The “Gaza Solidarity encampment” is gone. Only square patches of yellowing grass are left where the tents once stood.

About the author(s)

Oishika Neogi is an investigative journalism student at Columbia Journalism School. She focuses on human rights and identity politics stories.