I Was at Columbia When the Police Raided the Protest. Few Understand What Really Happened—and What’s Coming Now.

“Get the EMT!” Cameron Jones shouted through a tiny opening in a dormitory window after he spotted a protester lying motionless at the bottom of a set of concrete steps on Columbia University’s campus. Jones was with a dozen or so other students who were huddled next to two tall panes of glass and looking out in horror at Hamilton Hall, an administrative building that Columbia protesters had broken into and occupied in the early hours of April 30. Some 20 hours after the building had been occupied by students—who were pushing for their school’s divestment from Israel over the war in Gaza, and were inspired by occupations of the building by students in 1968, 1972, and 1996—hundreds of police had arrived at the university, some armed with handguns and wearing riot gear and body armor.

“I saw my fellow students being pushed, shoved, and thrown down stairs by police,” Jones said of the police crackdown. He was one of a few who actually witnessed what happened to the protesters once the police raid began. Moments earlier, police had cleared the area around Hamilton Hall of students and press, threatening to arrest anyone who did not leave. Officers pushed Jones and many other students into an on-campus residential building, John Jay Hall, before guarding the doors and blocking their sight of Hamilton. But Jones knew this building connected to another dorm called Hartley Hall, and from there, he got an unobstructed view of the occupied building. He squeezed his phone through a gap in the window and pressed record. If he couldn’t help, he felt he had to at least document it.

As protests spread across campuses nationwide in April and police responded with various forms of violent crackdowns, many horrifying interactions between students and professors and law enforcement officers circulated in videos online. At the University of Texas at Austin campus, students were slammed to the ground, dragged around, and blasted with pepper spray. At Dartmouth, law enforcement in riot gear arrested 89 students, faculty, and community members, including a 65-year-old professor who they yanked to the ground while she was recording officers. At UCLA, 200 students were arrested as officers used flash bangs, rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas. Three days earlier, violent attacks by counterprotesters at a UCLA encampment lasted three hours before law enforcement intervened. (The UCLA police chief has since been removed from his post and reassigned.)

But so many other interactions were not recorded. Even at Columbia—the campus that seemingly every media organization swarmed to in the days after university president Nemat Shafik first called the police to arrest students and clear the campus of tents on April 18—so many stories of students’ interactions with the police have not yet surfaced. It may take months, as lawsuits make their way through the court system, for much more documentation of what actually happened at Columbia—and so many other campuses—to come out.

So far, there hasn’t been any sort of national reckoning on the use of force against student protesters. It’s as if the outraged movement to improve police accountability after the summer of 2020 never happened. But as the violence in Gaza worsens and the U.S. heads into yet another volatile election season, the lack of introspection at a national level about police tactics is plainly dangerous.

I was on Columbia’s campus on the night Hamilton Hall was raided by police and had been reporting on the protests since the Gaza Solidarity Encampment there began. Since April 30, I’ve been in touch with several students who were both inside and outside of Hamilton Hall and experienced the police raid, some of whom shared their accounts and medical records to shed light on police action. I have seen documentation of lacerations, broken bones, extensive bruising, and hearing loss. Many of the students who were injured and shared their records with Slate asked to remain anonymous so as not to risk their legal cases. But thanks to them, we know that what actually happened during the police raid that night was far uglier than the NYPD’s highly edited, propagandistic narrative of it.

Iam Clay's selfie of his very swollen eye.
Iam Clay, one of the protesters who occupied Hamilton Hall, was diagnosed with an orbital fracture following the police raid. Iam Clay

Iam Clay, a student at the nearby Columbia-affiliated Union Theological Seminary, was one of the protesters inside Hamilton Hall. In a written testimony shared with me with Clay’s permission, he wrote that an officer “kicked him directly in the head,” and that he “fell to the ground with his ears ringing and then had an officer on top of him cuffing him while still disoriented.” Clay received no medical care while detained, and it was only after he was released that medics (who were waiting outside the jail to help protesters) told him he likely had a concussion. He later went to urgent care, where he was officially diagnosed with one. “Three days later his eye swelled up and he went to Mt. Sinai Emergency Room, where he was diagnosed with the orbital lobe fracture,” the written account of Clay’s injuries reads, a description that is corroborated with medical records and photos.

Clay’s friend Linnea Norton was arrested in the previous police sweep at Columbia on April 18, and she was later suspended from her Ph.D. program. After Clay was released from detention, she accompanied him to collect his personal belongings from One Police Plaza, where he had been held before being taken to central booking. He was charged with criminal trespassing. He told Norton how police threw him to the floor in Hamilton Hall before kicking him in the face as he was sitting up. They flipped him onto his belly, lifted him up, and slammed him to the ground, she said.

“I saw his face was swollen, and he was, you know, a bit loopy and delirious,” said Norton. “He was in jail without water or anything for 16-plus hours.”

“My friend is a seminary student; he is like the most peaceful, chill guy,” Norton added. He “just cares a lot about Palestine.”

Before police cleared the area around Hamilton Hall on April 30, 30 or so students interlocked arms outside the building in a human barricade to protect the protesters inside. By this time, everyone present was bracing themselves for arrests. That afternoon, students had received a note from the university administration with a warning to shelter in place due to “heightened activity on the Morningside campus,” or face disciplinary action. (As a journalism graduate student, I received the same email. It was unclear if students who were reporting were classified as press and therefore excluded from this order, but I stayed close to the protesters.)

Around 400 police arrived in buses and vans, organizing themselves around all the exits. They also barricaded the streets along five blocks on either side of the campus.

The officers began ordering all of us, student reporters and protesters alike, to move backward away from the students who formed the human chain, threatening to arrest us if we did not. Dalia Darazim, a 19-year-old Palestinian undergraduate who had taken part in the encampment, recorded it on her phone as they forced her back with their hands and batons. I was pushed along with all the other student reporters while insisting on our right to report. But once we were at the edge of the university grounds, officers ordered us to either enter John Jay Hall if we lived there or exit through gates onto Amsterdam Avenue and West 114th Street, where they barricaded us onto the sidewalk. They would not allow us back into Pulitzer Hall, the school’s journalism building. Anyone who was inside Pulitzer from earlier that day was not allowed out.

A person dangles a milk crate out of a Hamilton Hall window.
Protesters occupying Hamilton Hall at Columbia University pull food up to the balcony on April 30. Jazzmin Jiwa

Then, police marched up to those in the human chain. Watching from the dorm window, Jones saw officers grab, throw, and beat the protesters, using shields and batons to try to separate the students, who were singing.

“It was just kind of a feeling like if you’ve gone to the beach and you get hit by a really big wave, where you all of a sudden feel like you can’t stand and you can’t control where your body is going,” Allie Wong, a 38-year-old Ph.D. candidate who was in the human barricade, told me. “All of a sudden I was just being hit by, you know, multiple police officers coming from multiple directions without a single conversation or a single warning.”

As police cleared the line of students, 24-year-old Gabriel Yancy was inside Hamilton Hall. Yancy had worked as a research staff assistant at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, a neuroscience research center, for nearly two years. He heard banging and the whirring of electric saws that police were using to cut through the metal of the doors and the locks of chains that were keeping them shut. The protesters chanted: “Free, free Palestine.” To get into the building, police were flinging parts of the chairs and tables that students had stacked against the door the previous night. The flying debris pushed Yancy onto his back.

“When many of the police came in, they were still holding these giant, massive power tools,” he said. “Then they threw in flashbangs, and I am unclear whether it was one or multiple, but it had multiple detonations.”

Flashbangs are stun grenades that flash blinding light and make a loud explosive noise. In NYPD body camera footage published by CNN, eight consecutive flashbangs are heard.

“We were not anticipating that, and it’s not something we had talked about. I didn’t even really know they existed,” Yancy recalled. “All you can think is that you’re being fired at. I thought they had just decided to shoot into the building.”

A few days later, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office confirmed to the local outlet the City that in fact, an officer had fired his gun inside Hamilton Hall that night, albeit accidentally. (The NYPD likewise later confirmed the incident.) The bullet traveled through the glass in an office door, hit the frame of a wall, and landed on the floor.

After being knocked to his back, Yancy stood up and sat with other protesters at the back of the room. While they waited to be arrested, Yancy saw some of the other protesters being thrown to the ground and against a marble staircase.

“Some people were being stepped on and kicked by police,” Yancy said. “I did see officers put the boot on the back, holding people down, and also kicking their bodies.”

An officer pushed Yancy onto his chest with his face against the back wall, attached zip ties to his wrists, then kept him restrained in that position so Yancy was not able to see what else was happening.

He was one of two people who were Columbia staff members who were inside Hamilton Hall that evening. The university terminated both of their positions the next day.

Meanwhile, Wong, still outside, spotted a female student who had rolled down the steps leading from Hamilton Hall toward a grassy area. She rushed over to her, finding the student groaning and in and out of consciousness. Police ordered Wong to back away.

From his vantage point, watching from the window, Jones saw Wong and a few others huddled over the girl to protect her—but then he saw police hit them and drag them apart. That’s when an officer pulled Wong’s arms behind her back and cuffed her with zip ties. They walked her toward the gate to West 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. She says she was behind a female student who was beaten so badly that three police officers had to carry her out.

In total, 109 people were arrested, including the 34 inside Hamilton Hall, some of the students who had been singing outside it, and some outside the gates. Once Wong was in the bus with other students, as police drove them to the NYPD headquarters, she realized how badly one of her hands was hurt from being crushed. She later found her ribs were injured.

It was a horrible night, and not only on Columbia’s campus. The officers the NYPD sent into Hamilton Hall and to the City University of New York that same night were from the Strategic Response Group that was formed in 2015 for counterterrorism and the policing of political protests. The unit has become notorious for its violence against protesters.

Norton is still stunned that “the school invited the most violent section of the NYPD inside of campus with students and young people who are just trying to raise their voices and who feel the administration has not listened to them,” she said. “I’m just honestly feeling so relieved that nobody died.”

“These police officers were literally brutalizing people and treating them like animals, tying their zip ties so tight that they’re bleeding; it was just awful,” Wong recalled.

In a statement sent to me, an NYPD spokesperson denied police responsibility for any student injuries. A demonstrator’s footage showed “a protester dramatically rolling himself down the wide front steps,” the statement read. “Ultimately, no injuries were reported to police before, during, or after the trespassers’ removal.”

“The men and women of the NYPD take their public-safety role in society very seriously,” the statement continued. “The NYPD has more experience protecting and facilitating First Amendment rights than any other municipal police department in the nation. And what we have learned is that reversing the roles between offender and victim is a tactic often employed by professional demonstrators and their sympathizers (the same method, incidentally, exploited by serial sex offenders and perpetrators of domestic violence against their victims). It is an insidious form of psychological manipulation – “gaslighting” – usually displayed through outlandish claims and hyperbolic statements.”

Finally: “Those arrested at Hamilton Hall were not victims, a fact that will not be reversed by any amount of urgent imploring to the contrary,” the statement concluded. On May 18, NYPD officers were captured on video repeatedly punching, tackling, and otherwise attacking several pro-Palestinian protesters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Why go through every detail of the Columbia police raid? In short, it may prove to be a serious harbinger of things to come.

The NYPD accusing college students of “gaslighting” them would be funny if it weren’t so grim and, frankly, juvenile. It shows just how little soul-searching has been done in the aftermath of the decisions made to arrest students engaging in political speech on their own campuses. The NYPD also ended up dropping all trespassing summonses they gave to students on April 22 and April 30. This included those arrested inside the encampment and most who were part of the human chain outside Hamilton Hall.

From Friday to Sunday night, around 70 students created a new encampment, “Revolt for Rafah,” at Columbia during the school’s alumni reunion. The demonstration included eight tents and a life-sized cardboard replica of an MK-84 bomb, which the Israeli military has used in Gaza. The university’s public safety officers tried to drag protesters out and dismantle their tents, but the students only took down the installation as the reunion wrapped. In a statement, Columbia University Apartheid Divest said: “Disruptions and demonstrations like these will continue throughout the summer and beyond until Columbia ceases to align with occupation and genocide.”

Already, the same police unit that came to Columbia on April 30 has responded to other protests with violence, including a protest at the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend. The scene at the museum was chaotic. But it’s no surprise that as police have responded to peaceful protests aggressively, some protests are getting more aggressive in kind.

It’s a chilling preview of what could be a chaotic, violent, and protest-filled summer. There is already lots of planning going toward protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, an echo of the 1968 DNC, when Vietnam War protesters battled police in the same streets. And there will be money behind the efforts to shut protesters down. The Washington Post reported, about the police raid on Columbia, that a group of billionaires had pressured New York Mayor Eric Adams to send in the NYPD to break up the protests at the school.

It’s no surprise that the NYPD tried to keep reporters out of Hamilton Hall that day, but as the stories of those inside Columbia continue to come out—and as the police are called to respond to more and more protests—the story the police have been telling will become harder and harder to maintain.