Riot Pens: Colombian Protest Culture and the ‘Unafraid’ Specialization
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Riot Pens: Colombian Protest Culture and the ‘Unafraid’ Specialization

Riot Pens: Colombian Protest Culture and the 'Unafraid' Specialization

I spent five years at Columbia University, and nothing could have prepared me for the fact that on April 30, 2024, a police tank would roll down Amsterdam Avenue. Morale on campus was terrible after 10 students took their lives during the 2016-2017 academic year. In the months following the murder of Tessa Majors in 2019, the mood was generally morbid. Despite these recent tragedies, the evening that the New York Police Department (NYPD) raided Hind’s Hall stands out because Colombia only sanctions this level of state violence against marginalized students participating in liberation movements.

“Leading without fear” was a popular phrase among Barnard College students because admissions essays asked applicants to describe fearlessness. When Columbia President Minouche Shafik betrayed students during McCarthy-style congressional hearings to appease conservatives, Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) launched a campaign to end their school’s material complicity in apartheid and settler colonialism. Through the encampments, students demanded the withdrawal of investments from companies and institutions that profit from the Israeli occupation and ongoing genocide.

When I learned that many of the people arrested during the first NYPD inspection of the camps had ended up at Barnard, I knew nothing had changed. Barnard students remained determined to embody the change they wanted to see in the world, while Columbia University and Barnard College remained deeply embroiled in contradictions. In other cases, Columbia uses anti-racist themes in marketing materials to soften its public image as the city’s largest private landlord. On April 30, the same administration closed public intersections and a subway station and forced journalists into Pulitzer Hall to prevent people from viewing the brutal campaign against peaceful student organizers.

Since October 7, Generation Z has taken to social media to condemn America’s unconditional material support for the systematic slaughter of Palestinians by the Israeli army. Months of reviewing genocide history strikes most young people as people who tweet about daily mass shootings. Students mobilized because the same people who have allowed gun violence to become the leading cause of death among children in America are normalizing the slaughter and mass disabling of Palestinian youth. As horrifying as it was to learn that the NYPD pushed a protester down a flight of stairs, then brutally attacked people in the building and accidentally fired their weapons, this violence pales in comparison to what Palestinians are experiencing in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military.

Because fascism censors, prohibits and criminalizes liberatory intentions, we must support youth as they embody the shift in values ​​we need to survive. The solidarity camps are a peaceful expression of collective mourning for the more than 45,000 Palestinians who have been tortured to death by the Israeli army since October last year. They provide a space for students to gather, share stories, and learn from other movements. I visited the camp three times before witnessing the latest sloppy raid by the NYPD. Columbia and the NYPD turned a friendly, vibrant, multi-faith space that affirmed Palestinian rights into a live weapons showroom set above grass and broken glass.

Growing up is about realizing how much modern universities function like landowners, hedge funds, and war profiteers who conduct tax-exempt educational activities. My years at Columbia showed me how much of the school’s protest culture arose from its hostile relationship with Harlem and the South Bronx. Proposing a segregated gym, stealing land from prominent estates, and staging the city’s largest raid on NYCHA residents are just some of the many ways Columbia expresses its disdain for Harlem. Systemic abandonment has resulted in burning homes, collapsing buildings, food insecurity and limited access to health care, from the South Bronx to Rafah. CUAD followed the organizing strategy of the 1960s Gym Crow protests to protect Palestinians because anti-blackness is the exemplary force used to oppress all marginalized people.

Rebellion is a key stage in identity development. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of student organizers as a key part of youth culture pushing for a better world. Student resistance made Columbia the first Ivy to abandon South African apartheid and private prisons. Nearly 40 years before its liberation, Hamilton was renamed after Nelson Mandela in honor of Hind Rajab, a Palestinian child murdered by the Israeli army. Former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Kwame Ture once participated in protests in Colombia in 1968. Decades earlier, SNCC had challenged racist apartheid in America with sit-ins, boycotts, and freedom rides. Due to the cultural influence of student organizers, Columbia uses protest narratives in its marketing campaigns that are directly contrary to its business practices and policies.

On April 25, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal, a firm dedicated to the legal defense of the rights of Palestinians in the United States, announced a joint federal Title VI complaint against Colombia for extreme anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and Islamophobic harassment on campus. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was created to withhold federal funding from educational institutions that exposed black students to hostile campus environments. However, in 2010, pro-Israel lobbying groups abused Title VI by claiming that criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights harmed Jewish students.

“​We filed our own Title VI complaint on behalf of Palestinian students and their allies because it is important that universities get the message that they should not engage in knee-jerk discrimination against Palestinian students and allies who speak up for Palestinian rights because they are so afraid that their donors, trustees or other groups are disingenuously complaining about anti-Semitism,” explained Radhika Sainath, senior attorney at Palestine Legal. In all her years of advising students and professors on censorship and discrimination, Sainath said she has never seen a federal investigation launched within a week of filing a complaint. He attributes the government’s quick response to the turning point in the liberation of Palestine.

“Seeing so many people across the country advocating for Palestinian freedom is something I have never seen before, and I have been working on this issue for over 20 years,” Sainath says. “I think the tide is changing; “I think Israel and its supporters are losing the narrative war.” It is difficult to convince the public that demanding ethical and transparent investment practices in response to crimes against humanity is inherently anti-Semitic, especially since universities punish significant numbers of anti-Zionist Jewish students and suspend Jewish Voice for Peace chapters while claiming to be protecting the Jewish people.

Colombia is not unique in choosing to respond to social justice movements with excessive police force, even if it will cost taxpayers millions of dollars in police overtime. University administrators are willing to compromise student safety to protect their profits because they know students will succeed. While political leaders and university administrators use language to divide people and turn public opinion against anti-genocide protesters, we must support students who use their talents to free Palestine.

About the author: Krystyna Forbes is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in New York covering culture, education, lifestyle and beauty.