Nearly half arrested in Columbia, CCNY Gaza protests were outsiders, but unclear if they were ‘agitators’

NEW YORK — Almost half of the more than 280 pro-Palestinian protesters arrested at Columbia University and City College this week weren’t students or faculty at the schools, according to data released by Mayor Adams’ administration Thursday.

The issue of whether “outside agitators” were behind the encampment protests at Columbia and CCNY that culminated in the short-lived occupation of Columbia’s Hamilton Hall has become a focus of intense debate. Mayor Eric Adams, NYPD officials and college leaders have repeatedly said outsiders were influencing student behavior, while student protest leaders deny that’s the case.

The data released Thursday, while pointing to the involvement of many outsiders, didn’t make clear how many of the arrested demonstrators fit the bill of being “agitators.” Officials have declined to say who those suspected agitators are or how many of them were arrested.

The data from Adams’ administration, portions of which were first reported by The New York Daily News before its late afternoon release, show 134 of the 282 people arrested in Tuesday night’s raids at Columbia and City College weren’t students or faculty. Other arrest data obtained by the Daily News show that about a third of those arrested were 30 or older, though it was not clear from those statistics how many of them were or weren’t students.

The new info comes two days after hundreds of police officers in riot gear stormed the uptown Manhattan campuses of Columbia and City College, arresting the scores of pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had set up encampments days or weeks earlier to protest Israel’s war against Hamas.

Most of the arrests took place at Harlem’s City College campus, where 170 people in total were taken into custody on charges of burglary, assault on a police officer, obstructing governmental administration, criminal mischief, resisting arrest, trespassing and disorderly conduct, according to the data.

Of the 170, 102 were “unaffiliated” with the college, according to the data. The statistics do not make clear who the “unaffiliated” arrestees are or whether they were actively involved in the days-long protest or simply on or around the campus as the raids took place Tuesday night.

At Columbia, 112 people were arrested in total on similar charges, 80 of them students or faculty, the data say. The rest were in the “unaffiliated” category, according to the data.

Forty-four of the arrests at Columbia happened inside the occupied Hamilton Hall, according to other data obtained by the Daily News. Of them, 25 were Columbia students or employees, six were students at unidentified “affiliated institutions” and 13 were “nonaffiliates,” the data say.

Before the release of the data, Adams, who has repeatedly said the protests were heavily influenced by unidentified “professional” and “external” activists, said on NPR that about 40% of those arrested were “outsiders.”

He went on to say an NYPD Intelligence Division’s inquiry into the “ outside agitators” was based on his own “gut reaction” to what he perceived was going on at the protests.

“They came back, substantiated on the Columbia grounds and other grounds that there were those that were professionals who participated in training, participated in some of the activities,” he said.

Student leaders of the campus protests have denied the demonstrations have been led by “outsiders” and argue Adams’ use of the phrase is meant to delegitimize their demands for their schools to divest Israeli financial holdings over the country’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza, which was launched in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks. The Israeli military incursion has left more than 34,000 Palestinians dead, including thousands of children.

Leadership at Columbia and City College have echoed the mayor in saying that outsiders were involved in protests that roiled their campuses in recent weeks.

“Students inside the encampment began to warn us that outsiders among them were planning to take over a building,” City College President Vince Boudreau wrote in an email Wednesday to students and faculty.

When students briefly occupied an administrative building on the City College grounds in Harlem Tuesday night, he said, campus public safety entered it and arrested 31 protesters, none of whom were City College students. Of the 31 individuals arrested, five were affiliated with CUNY as students or employees, while at least 10 were not residents of New York State, Boudreau said.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik in a memo Wednesday also blamed “protests that have persistently mobilized outside our gates” for making many students feel “uncomfortable” and “unwelcome.”

Adams said the “tipping point” for him in analyzing the influence of outsiders came when he learned one woman who attended the Columbia demonstration is the wife of a man arrested on federal terrorism charges.

He didn’t name the woman, but The Associated Press identified her as Nahla Al-Arian, a 63-year-old retired teacher whose husband was deported to Turkey in 2015 after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge related to providing financial support to Palestinian Jihad, a terrorist group.

Al-Arian told the AP that she stopped by the campus protester encampment last week with her daughter. She was not present for Tuesday’s raids, and police officials have said there’s no indication of wrongdoing on her part.

“I could not sit back and state that I’m going to allow this to continue to escalate,” Adams said. “The school sent us a letter and reinforced their observation that there were outside individuals influencing the protests.”

With pro-Palestine protests expected to continue in the city as the weather heats up, the mayor also offered some advice for local colleges.

On Fox5, he called on them to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy on encampment protests going forward.

“Soon as that tent goes up, it comes down, do not allow this to continue to expand,” he said.

Other local Democrats have said colleges should instead engage in discussion with campus protesters.

They’ve pointed to Brown University, where a pro-Palestinian encampment was voluntarily disassembled this week after school leaders committed to a dialogue with protesters about their demands to divest from Israeli financial holdings.

“You should not call the Police Department,” city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams told the Daily News. “You should do what other universities did around the country. They opened up a dialogue so they can listen to what people are saying, acknowledge their pain and have a way for people to have a conversation.”