My Writing Students Were Arrested at Columbia. Their Voices Have Never Been More Essential

On April 30, 56 years after Columbia sent the police in to arrest student protesters who had taken over Hamilton Hall in protest of the Vietnam War—protests the school loves to promote—I was walking my 12-year-old daughter home after her choir performance. We had gone an extra stop on the subway because the stop at 116th, Columbia’s stop, was closed. Instead, we had to walk back to our apartment from the 125th stop. When we got within sight of Columbia, a line of dozens of police blocked our path. I asked them to let us through; I pointed to our apartment building and said we lived there. As a Columbia professor, I live in Columbia housing.

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“I have my orders,” the cop in charge said.

“I live right there,” I said. “It’s my daughter’s bedtime.”

“I have my orders,” he said again.

“I’m just trying to get home,” I said.

We were forced to walk back the way we came from and circle around from another block. Luckily, our building has an entrance through the bodega in the basement. This is how I took my daughter up to her room and sent her to bed.

Read More: Columbia’s Relationship With Student Protesters Has Long Been Fraught

A week earlier, I had brought some food for the students camping out on Columbia’s West Lawn and had met with similar resistance. Security guards asked whether I was really faculty; I had already swiped my faculty badge that should have confirmed my identity. They asked to take my badge, then they said I hadn’t swiped it, which I had, two seconds earlier, as they watched. They said their professors had never brought food to them before. I didn’t know what to say to this—“I’m sorry that your professors never brought you food?” They called someone and told them the number on my badge. Finally, they were forced to let me through. They said again that their professors had never brought them food. “OK,” I said, and walked into campus. I reported their behavior and never received a reply.

On April 30, after I had got my daughter to bed, my partner and I took the dog down to pee. We watched the protesters call, “Shame!” as the police went in and out of the blockade that stretched 10 blocks around campus. Earlier that day, we had seen police collecting barricades—it seemed like there would be a bit of peace. As soon as it got dark, they must have used those barricades and more to block off the 10 blocks. There were reports on campus that journalists were not allowed out of Pulitzer Hall, including Columbia’s own student journalists and the dean of the School of Journalism, under threat of arrest. Faculty and students who did not live on campus had been forbidden access to campus in the morning. There was no one around to witness. My partner and I had to use social media to see the hundreds of police in full riot gear, guns out, infiltrate Columbia’s Hamilton Hall, where protesters had holed up, mirroring the 1968 protests that had occupied the same building.

In the next few days, I was in meeting after meeting. Internally, we were told that the arrests had been peaceful and careful, with no student injuries. The same thing was repeated by Mayor Adams and CNN. Meanwhile, president Minouche Shafik had violated faculty governance and the university bylaws that she consult the executive committee before calling police onto campus. (The committee voted unanimously against police intervention.)

Read More: Columbia Cancels Main Commencement Following Weeks of Pro-Palestinian Protests

Then, Saturday morning, I got an email from a couple of writing students that they had been released from jail. I hadn’t heard that any of our students had been involved. They told me they hadn’t gotten food or water, or even their meds, for 24 hours. They had watched their friends bleed, kicked in the face by police. They said they had been careful not to damage university property. At least one cop busted into a locked office and fired a gun, threatened by what my students called “unarmed students in pajamas.”

In the mainstream media, the story was very different. The vandalism was blamed on students. Police showed off one of Oxford Press’s Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. (This series of books offers scholarly introductions that help students prepare for classes, not how-to pamphlets teaching them to do terrorism.)

“I feel like I’m being gaslit,” one of my students said.

I teach creative writing, and I am the author of a book about teaching creative writing and the origins of creative-writing programs in the early 20th century. The oldest MFA program in the country, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was funded by special-interest groups like the Rockefeller Foundation and, famously, the CIA, and was explicitly described by director Paul Engle as a tool to spread American values.

Read More: ‘Why Are Police in Riot Gear?’ Inside Columbia and City College’s Darkest Night

The way we teach creative writing is essential because it shapes what kinds of narratives will be seen as valuable, pleasurable, and convincing. Today’s writing students will record how our current events become history. One of the strategies Columbia took with its police invasion was to block access of faculty, students, and press to the truth. It didn’t want any witnesses. It wanted to control the story.

For weeks, Columbia administration and the mainstream media has painted student protesters as violent and disruptive—and though there have been incidents of antisemitism, racism, and anti-Muslim hatred, including a chemical attack on pro-Palestine protesters, I visited the encampment multiple times and saw a place of joy, love, and community that included explicit teach-ins on antisemitism and explicit rules against any hateful language and action. Students of different faiths protected each other’s right to prayer. Meanwhile, wary of surveillance and the potential use of facial recognition to identify them, they covered their faces. Faculty have become afraid to use university email addresses to discuss ways to protect their students. At one point, the administration circulated documents they wanted students to sign, agreeing to self-identify their involvement and leave the encampment by a 2 p.m. deadline or face suspension or worse. In the end, student radio WKCR reported that even students who did leave the encampment were suspended.

In a recent statement in the Guardian and an oral history in New York Magazine, and through the remarkable coverage of WKCR, Columbia students have sought to take back the narrative. They have detailed the widespread support on campus for student protesters; the peaceful nature of the demonstrations; widespread student wishes to divest financially from Israel, cancel the Tel Aviv Global Center, and end Columbia’s dual-degree program with Tel Aviv University; and the administration’s lack of good faith in negotiations. As part of the Guardian statement, the student body says that multiple news outlets refused to print it. They emphasize their desire to tell their own story.

In a time of mass misinformation, writers who tell the truth and who are there to witness the truth firsthand are essential and must be protected. My students in Columbia’s writing program who have been arrested and face expulsion for wanting the university to disclose and divest, and the many other student protesters, represent the remarkable energy and skepticism of the younger generation who are committed not only to witnessing but participating in the making of a better world. Truth has power, but only if there are people around to tell the truth. We must protect their right to do so, whether or not the truth serves our beliefs. It is the next generation of writers who understand this best and are fighting for both their right and ours to be heard.

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