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President and Chancellor Explain Decision to Call NYPD

By Rhiannon Rashidi

Students and faculty at The City College of New York (CCNY) are trying to understand why the administration called in the NYPD to break up the pro Palestinian protest and the CUNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment Tuesday night. Thousands of people watched the events unfold on social media livestreams, and many in the campus community have questions about what really happened. “No one really wanted to get arrested. No one wanted to escalate things. But this was inevitable once they brought in like, like a military task force,” said a protestor who was arrested and didn’t want to be identified.

We interviewed CCNY President Vincent Boudreau, two days after he and CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez made the decision to bring the NYPD to campus. He defended his decision and explained that the threats to the campus were significant. He said that public safety officers and college administrators grew worried about the possibility of break-ins to buildings, and what he perceived was an escalation of strange behavior. “Monday into Tuesday, public safety noticed a group of 25 activists kind of around campus checking out buildings,” President Boudreau said. “At one point they were kind of, you know, grabbing the bars and on the windows at Wingate and shaking them to see if they were loose.” He said college officials saw big rocks placed in front of windows at Wingate Hall. 


He was particularly concerned about the influence of protesters who are not connected to CUNY. He said that the administration recognized more protesters with connections to the college and university during the day than at night. The first big problem appeared on Sunday night when a flare gun was fired out of the encampment and one flare landed on top of the Marshak Science Building. President Boudreau said it, “Ignited a fire that required FDNY’s support to extinguish.“ That caused the president to send a letter to encampment leaders telling them that they would have to leave. 

During our interview, President Boudreau questioned where the flares came from, “[They were] parachute flares fired from a flare gun. And it’s a specific kind of flare that is military grade. It’s not available to civilians,” he said. “[The flare landed and] caught fire. And it burned through three layers of roof. It did about a quarter million dollars worth of damage. If our public safety officers hadn’t seen it and gone up with fire extinguishers, the FDNY says the whole building would have gone up.”

But the encampment and the protestors remained on Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday evening around 7 p.m., protestors who had been near Columbia University came to City College. We saw at least 12 police cars following.

NYPD officers began to put fencing up around the perimeter of the college from 140 Street to 135 Street. An email to the community from Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriquez, on Thursday, May 2, filled in the timeline of events. It said that a group of protestors tried unsuccessfully to, “…break into the college’s landmarked Shepard Hall before moving on to the [Wille] Administration Building.”

President Boudreau said at that point, “People from the encampment came and engaged our public safety officers and so that was a little bit of a standoff, And then a group of about 30 or 40 activists separated and started running towards Wille, and so our public safety officers followed them. Our officers got there first. And so there was a kind of a skirmish at the front door of Wille to try to keep them out about that same time.”

The NYPD was not in front of the Administration Building then. College public safety officers confronted the protesters. 

The first reports of pepper spray injuries came from this part of the conflict. Two public safety officers were sent to the hospital with injuries and pepper spray related trauma.

“I think we have on film that when they were on the steps of Wille, and they were confronted by the activists, they did use that spray. Many of our public safety officers were also sprayed so it was used on both sides,” President Boudreau said when interviewed. “I have no real direct knowledge of injuries to students. I’ve heard rumors, but not a single person has come forward and said this is the injury that I sustained as a result of your interaction.” 

But videos and live streams shot during the altercation showed protesters washing their eyes out with water. “I was across the Administration Building, handing out water to [protester] that got tear gassed,” Eliana Basher, a student at CCNY and protester, said.

While public safety officers were distracted in the front of the building. A group did break in through a back door. Inside the building, according to the administration, demonstrators smashed glass doors, and vandalized offices, computers and spray painted security cameras as they tried to lock themselves in the Financial Aid Office. 

At 11:15 President Boudreau and Chancellor Matos decided to call in the NYPD. 100 officers were already surrounding the college and watching the protestors on Amsterdam Avenue. 

In his email Chancellor Matos wrote. “In the face of immediate danger to personal safety and damage to campus facilities, and with the fast growing number of demonstrators creating an emergency situation, City College President Vincent Boudreau and I made the difficult decision to request the assistance of the NYPD who entered the encampment area around 11:45.”

Boudreau said that he understood that many think, “.. the idea of an NYPD presence on campus is [horrible],” he wrote in a letter to the college community on Wednesday night. In our interview he recounted his reasoning and detailed the arrests and the fact that many of those arrested were not students, faculty or affiliated with City College or CUNY.

According to data the NYPD sent to President Boudreau’s office Thursday morning, the police made 179 arrests on and around campus. 33 were arrested when protesters broke into the Administration Building. Of those arrested at Wille, one was a CCNY student, another a faculty member. 14 were CUNY students or faculty. The rest had no connection to the college or university. After the arrests, school public safety officers found bags with chains, flares, box cutters and a bolt cutter that the protestors left behind.

Police arrested 146 protesters later in the night. 6 were students or faculty at CCNY, 54 were from CUNY, and the rest had no connection to the college or university. The vast majority of those arrested were given summons. 

But even with clarity on the rationale for arrests, the numbers and who was arrested, there is still a lot still unclear about that night. And there is a lot of concern about freedom of speech, and the right to protest, at a public college that called in the police on students and protestors.


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