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“Panicking” and “screams”: A Palestinian-American NYU professor describes cops' student protest crackdown

Born and raised in Israel, human rights lawyer Jamil Dakwar brings a distinct perspective to the protest movement.

Photo via Jamil Dakwar/Twitter

Jamil Dakwar has been an adjunct professor at NYU for the past two semesters but has studied and professionally defended civil liberties for his entire career. A Palestinian born and raised in Haifa, Israel, and educated at Tel Aviv University, it would be an understatement to say he brings a unique perspective to the conflict at large—and the one happening on the very campus where he teaches. And that’s why I really wanted to talk to him.

Monday night as I was just about to go downstairs to greet Passover guests at my parents’ seder, I received an email from an unrecognized source. The subject line read “police massing to clear NYU camp now.” The body of the email was empty. A chill ran down my spine.

I wrote back with questions, and the source clarified they were an anonymous member of NYU staff on the ground and said NYPD officers were lined up on the perimeter of Washington Square Park. They were there to clear the student encampment that had been set up earlier that day in nearby Gould Plaza in solidarity with their fellow students uptown at Columbia. The cops, it turns out, had been called there by the university administration. And Dakwar, too, was there to bear witness to the frightening scene.

A professor for 10 years, Dakwar has taught at Hunter College, John Jay College, and now, NYU. He’s also an alumni of the school, having earned his LLM at the law school in 2003. More than 20 years later, he has now witnessed his alma mater turn against its own students. I spoke to him by phone Tuesday about what he saw Monday night, how his background informs his perspective, and whether we could be headed for the worst case scenario at universities across the country.

Dakwar is also the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, but is only speaking here in his capacity as an adjunct professor at NYU and not on behalf of the ACLU. Our conversation is extensive but, in my opinion, wildly important. It has been edited for length and clarity.

MARISA KABAS, The Handbasket: How did you end up at Gould Plaza last night?

JAMIL DAKWAR, NYU Adjunct Professor: I was on my way to teach my course, Human Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. I stopped the first time to check on what's happening because I've been seeing some reporting on social media. I stopped for about five minutes on my way to my class, which starts around five. I posted the video of what was happening then, and then again soon after I finished teaching my course close to eight o'clock. 

I just made it back to see what's been happening, and to my shock, I saw the three buses—the NYPD buses. They were blocking one of the side streets, I think. And then I headed towards the plaza to see, and I couldn't get in from there, so I turned around and I was standing where they were starting to arrest, round up, and remove the faculty and students and others. 

I couldn't get into the encampment, where people were getting arrested. So I didn't have a view of that, but I was seeing the people taken down the stairs to the buses and taking them to be booked in jail.

KABAS: Can you describe what the scene was like when you stopped by around five?

DAKWAR: It was a very crowded space around the plaza, in terms of the people who were protesting. I couldn't exactly see the encampment, meaning tents or any other things that were placed on the ground, but I could see that people were chanting very peaceful chants and protests. And across the street, there was one counterprotestor with an Israeli flag. I think there were a few security people standing in between. 

It was very much a peaceful protest. But at that point, I didn't see a significant number of NYPD. After my class, around eight o'clock, I noticed the huge number of NYPD officers, not only around the plaza but also in different directions. Some of them were with their batons and zipties. They were ready and clearly they intended to make arrests.

KABAS: There was obviously a pretty big escalation in those couple of hours while you were in class. Aside from the number of NYPD officers and buses, what else did you notice about the atmosphere when you came back?

DAKWAR: It was clear that they [the student protesters] were starting to be surrounded by the NYPD. At one point I think there was a movement of people where you could see that people were panicking or [hear] screams. I guess this is when they [the NYPD] started to do the warnings and arrests of people for—I guess the charge was trespassing at that point.

I didn’t see any kind of violence or any kind of acts by protesters that was necessary to bring such a huge force by the NYPD. Several people were arrested and the NYPD used excessive force just to subdue them and to handcuff them. But I have not seen any other signs that there was any kind of violence or any other kind of improper actions or behavior by the protesters that triggered the kind of crackdown from NYPD. Other than, of course, that they were there to assist NYU in raiding and pushing out the students.  

Essentially, they were there to clear the area.  And that's what happened. I stayed until very late, around 10:30 or 11 PM last night, and it was clear that that was the purpose and the goal. 

I’ve learned that several people have been arrested just for being there. According to monitors from the National Lawyers Guild and the New York Civil Liberties Union, apparently one person was arrested even though he was just walking on the sidewalk and he was not involved in any of the action or protest. He was living there around the neighborhood. There was an old man—I was very close and I took a video of that on my phone, he was holding a small dog in his hands, and he was also arrested and he would not be let go by the NYPD police officers. And it didn’t seem that he had posed any threat or any danger to anyone, or interrupted anything.

KABAS: I wanted to go back to something you mentioned about the students and faculty being arrested for trespassing. This question has come up a lot the last few days at NYU, at Columbia, at Google. How can you be charged with trespassing when you are a student of the university? Is any pretense required to make that charge?

DAKWAR: Well, you know, I'm not a criminal defense lawyer, but it does seem to be bizarre to use trespassing. That seems to be the only way that they could get the NYPD to go on private property, as the university has claimed, in order to arrest and remove people. Because there was no other basis for that. No crimes were committed. There were no attacks, no threats or intimidation of any sort to justify the removal of people peacefully assembling. Again, this is a plaza that is open to not only students, faculty, people who work at NYU. The public has always been allowed into the plaza. No one would be reasonably accused of trespassing. 

Now it’s trespassing because they are protesting, and protesting something that the university doesn't like: protesting the genocide in Gaza; protesting NYU’s complicity. 

It seems that the only reason they were targeted is because that message is inconvenient, uncomfortable. That's why they're resorting to claiming  “trespassing.” Which does not hold water, and will likely make it hard to  sustain these charges down the road.

KABAS: What was it like to see fellow faculty members be swept up in the NYPD crackdown?

DAKWAR: My understanding is that faculty were trying to protect the students from NYPD violence or arrests—in solidarity with the students. It’s very unfortunate that NYU, instead of supporting the right to free speech and supporting the faculty and academic freedom on campus, called in NYPD. 

That's not what a university is supposed to do. There seemed to be more concern about public relations, perhaps more sensitivity to outside pressures to end the protest. It certainly was very concerning to see the faculty members taken out by officers and spending several hours in the police station. 

KABAS: So you feel like this violent response was particularly pointed because of what the students were specifically protesting?

DAKWAR: It’s hard to disconnect between the disproportionate response and the underlying message of this protest. It’s a protest highlighting the university’s complicity—there were specific, clear demands for divesting from Israel, a state that's created an apartheid system and is committing atrocities in Gaza. 

If another country had been the subject of a similar protest, I suspect we would not see this kind of response from the NYU administration. We would not see NYPD called in to clear the encampment and to crack down on the peaceful assembly and protesters.

KABAS: I understand that you're Palestinian-Israeli. Is that right?

DAKWAR: Yeah, I'm Palestinian. I'm Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, too. I was born and raised in Haifa and went to Tel Aviv University law school and practiced law in Israel as a human rights lawyer before I moved to the United States. But I'm also obviously now an American citizen as well.

KABAS: How does having grown up in Israel shape your perspective on the American protests?

DAKWAR: My experience growing up in Israel was of a country that denies equal citizenship to non-Jewish citizens, especially Palestinians who are treated as undesirable guests in their own homeland. Growing up as a second-class citizen in a working class, segregated neighborhood in Haifa drove me to become an activist since attending high school, and later on as Arab student movement leader at Tel Aviv University. We had fought for free speech on campus, equal access to housing, as well as against institutional racism and advocated for transforming Israel into a real democracy—a state for all its citizens. We also protested against Israel’s military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and believed the Oslo peace process was deeply flawed as it perpetuated Israeli control and domination over Palestinian people, lands and natural resources and intentionally sidelined root causes of the Palestinian question, namely self determination and rights of refugees.

So what I've seen in this student movement is very encouraging. Students are engaged, and the movement is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious. That broad composition makes it much stronger and much harder for the universities to suppress and undermine.

That they are quickly breaking with a tradition of accepting student protest—from the civil rights movement to anti-apartheid demonstrations— is very, very troubling.  It says something about the double standard at play that university administrations seem to have difficulty accepting these particular protests, while we know that if other causes were taken up by the student movement, it would be much more tolerated and accepted. 

So the university authorities are supporting Israel’s right to safety and freedom from atrocities, yet completely ignoring the rights of the Palestinian people. Gazans continue to be subjected to war crimes. Most recently, in an interim ruling, the International Court of Justice found it plausible that Israel's acts could amount to genocide.

KABAS: You mentioned this double standard, and that's coming up a lot now with the student protests that kicked off at Columbia. There's been a lot of attempts to reframe the conversation to talk about antisemitic incidents and the safety of Jewish students on campus. What do you think the purpose is of reshaping the conversation that way?

DAKWAR: We know that well before October 7th, weaponizing anti-semitism was a way to shut down speech critical of Israel or critical of Zionism. It’s not a new thing. 

What's new is the attempt to completely ignore the impact of such a shift on free speech and the safety of all students. I think that antisemitism is real and we should take it very seriously. We should protect people from being attacked for being Jewish. Intimidation or threats need to be taken seriously. 

That’s different from criticism of Israel as a state, or criticism of its politics. If Israel is criticized as a state that's committing atrocities, that shouldn't be considered antisemitism.

 Unfortunately, accusations of antisemitism are again being used to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel—and what Israel is doing in Gaza, in particular.  

Providing a safe campus environment is a noble cause and goal. That doesn't mean that you have to subject people to disciplinary measures by stating particular slogans that are uncomfortable for certain people to hear. Slogans like, “From the river to the sea,” which the House of Representatives condemned in a resolution. To me, it doesn’t represent antisemitism: It is a representation of freeing people from systemic violations of human rights, and creating something that is equal and provides justice for all.

KABAS: I guess the question is what happens when the slogans turn to actual antisemitism, like we’ve seen in some videos from Columbia. I agree that antisemitism and anti-zionism are not the same and they've been dangerously conflated. But has there been any spillover of antisemitism into the movement for freedom for Palestine? And how do we deal with that, even if it’s a small part of the movement?

DAKWAR: I think I saw a big banner at Columbia specifically clarifying the principles of the movement—that they reject antisemitism and they're rejecting people who may be using that rhetoric, whether outsiders or provocateurs. Some people may be using antisemitic attacks to undermine the legitimacy of this protest. We've seen this in the past. 

But by and large, in my view, the student movement—including the professors who have been standing by their students or by this movement—are not using antisemitic language.

If there are any incidents like that, I think they have to be confronted, they have to be challenged, they have to be investigated. Again, I'm talking about threats and intimidation of people because they're Jewish. But I don't think that this represents what we're seeing. What we're seeing is, even if there are slogans or demands for Palestinian liberation and equality for all, that doesn't in itself represent antisemitic slogans.

A wall erected Tuesday in front of Gould Plaza (Matthew Budman/Bluesky)

KABAS: I noticed on social media that you referred to the student protesters as “anti-genocide” and that jumped out at me because I've mostly been seeing people refer to them as pro-Palestine or anti-Zionist. Why is that language and distinction important to you? 

DAKWAR: First, I think there's a reason that we are seeing this movement happening now. I think most of the slogans are protesting the genocide that is unfolding in Gaza. 

Second, this is not just a war. It's a genocidal campaign—and that makes it much more urgent to protest against. I think people are also avoiding categorizing it as genocide. Maybe a very small minority would not agree that they are protesting genocide, but I think by and large this is being led by students that are protesting what's happening as a genocide.

KABAS: With the protests at NYU and Columbia and other ones popping up in California, Michigan, Texas, it feels like we're nearing a real crescendo. Based on what you saw last night, could you foresee a Kent State-like event in the near future?

DAKWAR: Well, I hope not. I think that that would be terrible and the most dangerous scenario.

KABAS: There are elected officials—two senators!—saying that we should call in the National Guard to Columbia.

DAKWAR: I think these politicians should not be taken seriously. Incitement to escalate the crackdown is dangerous. I tweeted that the statement by the head of the ADL yesterday outside Columbia is also very dangerous: suggesting that the National Guard should be involved in suppressing and cracking down on peaceful protests and assemblies, that's a really serious and very dangerous scenario.

I'm very familiar with that [the Kent State] incident because in 2013-2014, I advised one of the family members of a victim on how to pursue international accountability in support of their demand to reopen the criminal investigation into the extra-judicial killings at the school. And I hope the lesson learned is that there shouldn't be any resort to violence, particularly use of firearms.

So I think the focus should be now on de-escalation on the part of the universities. They need to consider how to better respond to those peaceful assemblies and how to accommodate and facilitate those assemblies rather than thinking about escalating their response by engaging the National Guard. That outcome would only be catastrophic.

KABAS: There were claims that there was aggression and physical violence by the faculty at NYU last night. It seems like all the police need to do is make some sort of allegation about a generic type of physical contact to “justify” the use of force. So, if we're living in that type of environment, how are protesters able to protect themselves and how is the truth able to prevail under these conditions?

DAKWAR: Well, that's why it's not a good idea for a university administration to call in the NYPD. It’s a recipe for further confrontation and escalation.

I think this is a wake up call for administration officials to prioritize yes, safety for all, and also at the same time, free speech and assembly rights should not be sidelined just because there are isolated incidents of intimidation or threats. Those can be handled and should be handled, but without creating a collective punishment environment where you are going to crack down on an entire movement. If one or two protesters resort to violence that doesn't, and shouldn't, make the entire demonstrations or protests illegal or unlawful. Rather, there have to be concrete ways to isolate those individuals and to try to deal with that situation. And again, with the minimum use of force so we don't see the worst case scenario.

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