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Mayor Eric Adams says “outside agitators” influenced Columbia University protests. What does he mean?

By Tim McNicholas, Walter Smith Randolph, Ali Bauman

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    NEW YORK, NY (WCBS) — Mayor Eric Adams and other New York City officials have blamed “outside agitators” for escalating pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University and influencing students. CBS New York investigative reporter Tim McNicholas has been asking the city for specifics on what that means.

Tuesday night, Columbia University asked the NYPD to clear protesters who had locked themselves inside Hamilton Hall on the school’s Morningside campus, as well as those who had been staying in an unsanctioned tent city for over a week.

According to the NYPD, 109 people were arrested at Columbia.

CBS New York has asked the NYPD how many of the people arrested at the protest were students, but they have not yet provided an answer. However, senior police sources say of the 282 people arrested at both Columbia and City College of New York, 27% were over 30 years old and just over 10% have been arrested several times, mostly protest-related.

Wednesday morning, the NYPD showed reporters a lock they say protesters put on Hamilton Hall. The Deputy Commissioner of Public Information said, “This is not what students bring to school. This is what professionals bring to campuses and universities.”

In 2020, however, Columbia’s Public Safety Department offered what appears to be the same lock to students at a discount. CBS New York is still working to confirm who brought that lock to Hamilton Hall.

Also on Wednesday, another NYPD deputy commissioner said the wife of a man convicted of terrorism was on the Columbia campus last week, but police have no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing on her part.

The NYPD has pointed out at least one person involved in this week’s protests who they describe as a “professional agitator.”

Police released a video from earlier this week of Lisa Fithian, who has helped organize protests for a long list of causes across the country for decades. She was on campus Monday night into Tuesday morning.

In another video from Monday night, she is seen directing protestors as they tie a table to a door. Tuesday, Fithian told CNN that was done as a safety measure because tables have been used to shove people.

Fithian said she didn’t train anyone to take over any buildings, and she said she’s not affiliated with any group and came to Columbia on her own accord.

CBS New York tried to reach her Wednesday but hasn’t heard back.

Mark Naison, a protest historian and professor at Fordham University, told CBS New York he doesn’t believe outsiders are the main organizers of pro-Palestinian campus protests.

“There are a lot of Palestinian students at almost every major university, and some of them have lost 10 or 20 relatives in Gaza,” he said. “And this is very personal and they talk about this to their fellow students.”

“Historically, communities have always leaned internally to answer the moral question, ‘What side are you on?’ And have always organized themselves internally to fight for the rights of other folks,” said Celeste Faison, an executive director of Movement for Black Lives and a demonstration strategist in Harlem.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators set up an encampment on Columbia University’s main lawn in early April, demanding the school divest from companies that do business with Israel. On April 18, Columbia University President Minouche Shafik asked the NYPD to clear the protesters, saying the encampment posed a danger. Over 100 people were arrested.

Protesters quickly returned to the main lawn, setting up an even larger tent city and camping out for over a week. During that time, student protest organizers and school officials had discussions to try to find a resolution, but officials said Monday they had reached an impasse and a deadline was issued for students to clear the encampment.

The protesters refused to leave the tent city, and overnight Monday into Tuesday, a group forced their way into Hamilton Hall and barricaded themselves inside.

Shafik then again called on the NYPD for help clearing Hamilton Hall and the encampments. She also requested the NYPD maintain a presence on campus until after the university’s commencement ceremony.

Tuesday night, hundreds of NYPD officers entered the campus, took dozens of protesters into custody and dismantled the encampments.

Shafik released a statement Wednesday morning, saying in part, “I am sorry we reached this point.”

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