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How the Media Failed the College Student Encampments

The focus on Columbia University has overshadowed the extent of protests—and police brutality—at public schools. Those charged with occupying a Columbia building are facing misdemeanors, while those charged with occupying CCNY buildings face felonies

A Palestinian flag billows in the wind on the outskirts of the CUNY pro-Palestine encampment, across the street from City College's iconic Shepard Hall building in the background, New York City, April 28, 2024,(Photo credit: Sarah Baum)

The night the riot police came to Columbia University, those of us still standing at the City College of New York (CCNY) pro-Palestine encampment watched in horror, in real time via live stream, as police brutalized students en masse. I’d spent the week oscillating between the two camps documenting the movement. CCNY  is a mere twenty-minute walk, or a couple subway stops, from Columbia. 

Word somehow got back to us that the thick, dark wall of police, with their riot gear and paddy wagons, were making their way uptown. We knew CCNY’s encampment would be their next stop.

Sure enough, just minutes before midnight on May Day, the NYPD burst through the gates, lights flashing, batons ready to meet the few dozen unarmed protestors left—throughout the night, the police had reportedly deployed tasers on anti-war demonstrators, shattered their teeth, and broke their bones. Iqra, a recent Hunter College graduate and organizer in her twenties, recalls how protestors were dragged to the precinct and left for hours without proper food, water or medical attention.

But what shocked her most were the headlines the next day. 

A freelance videographer from Al Jazeera English, who had been pepper sprayed by police while filming the demonstrations, lays on the grass outside the CUNY encampment, April 30, 2024. A medical student and volunteer street medic for the protests treated his injuries by flushing the pepper spray from his eyes with water.    (Photo: Sarah Baum / The Progressive Magazine)

From the May 1 cover of the New York Daily News: “Cops Crush Columbia Takeover.” From the New York Post: “Hundreds of NYPD officers stormed Columbia University.” From the front page of The Wall Street Journal: “Police Move to End Protests at Columbia.”

Notably absent from every one of these front-page spreads is any mention of CCNY—even as the encampment saw the largest amount of single-day arrests of any pro-Palestine encampment at the time, with more than 170 people detained. This surpassed the number of students arrested on the same night from Columbia and its sister school, Barnard College, by dozens. (Only the University of California-Los Angeles has since topped this record.)

“We were arrested the same night [as Columbia students], from the same neighborhood, taken to the same jail,” Iqra tells The Progressive. “However, the media coverage [of CCNY] was so vastly different. And by vastly different, I mean almost non-existent.”

 Although anti-war organizers had camped out on the lawn of City College, calling it “the City College encampment” is misleading. Organizers from across the City University of New York (CUNY) system stood at the helm. CUNY is the largest public higher education system in the country, hosting more than twenty-five individual colleges (including Iqra’s alma mater, Hunter) and serving more than 250,000 students per year. 

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“CUNY is the key to the city of New York,” Jordan, an organizer, Ph.D. student, and adjunct professor at CUNY, says. “Students come out and they go into a lot of unionized jobs, a lot of jobs in the city that have a lot of people power attached to them.”


Student-made signage at the heart of the encampment at City College in New York, April 27, 2024.  (Photo: Sarah Baum / The Progressive Magazine)

Colloquially known as “The Harvard of the Proletariat,” CUNY celebrates its working-class roots and predominantly Black and brown student body. Of course, many students at Columbia and Barnard are also people of color, first-generation, or low-income. But on average, the median family income of a Columbia student is more than $150,000 per year. At CUNY, that number is around $36,000.

Moreover, Columbia resides in a tightly guarded and gated campus in the middle of Morningside Heights, an affluent enclave on the outskirts of Harlem. CCNY, in contrast, has an open campus that blends seamlessly with the immigrant and working-class communities of West Harlem. 

Iqra, Jordan, and other organizers emphasized that the point of the encampments is, first and foremost, to draw attention to the genocide in Gaza; they are not particularly concerned with “getting credit.” Rather, they are concerned about the ways such disparate attention cascades, shaping the material conditions of frontline organizers.

As Iqra put it, “The emphasis of the media on only Columbia only [further] highlighted the differences in privilege and in protection for Ivy League students versus public school students.”

Days before the midnight raids, the Associated Press reported that “what started at Columbia has turned into a nationwide showdown.” An April 29 NBC article noted that “Columbia was the first institution struck by protests in support of the Palestinian cause.” And in May, Fortune asserted that “the encampments [...] first cropped up at the prestigious Ivy-League school.”

The problem: None of that is true. 

For starters, the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, whose principles and tactics inspired the  encampments, were crafted by Palestinian scholars before many of the contemporary protesters were even born. While student organizers’ demands may vary by school, the most common goals include the disclosure of schools’ endowments, university divestment from companies supporting the occupation of Palestine, amnesty for student protesters, and an end to U.S.-Israeli academic partnerships, such as study abroad programs. 

Even the vigor of student protests following the October 7 attacks—including the practice of erecting pro-Palestinian encampments—does not originate at Columbia. It was not the first to occupy a school building, which California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, and Smith College had done prior. It was not the first to see the mass arrest of protesters, which activists at Pomona College and the University of Michigan had been enduring for months. Nor was Columbia the first to establish a Gaza solidarity encampment; Tufts University and Vanderbilt University had long established their own encampments by the time Columbia students pitched their tents on April 17.

On the one hand, Hebh Jamal, a 2019 CUNY graduate and a Palestinian American journalist, understands why the mainstream media might hyperfixate on Columbia. “There is prestige associated with [Columbia and] therefore it is more in line for them to keep the status quo,” Jamal says. “Seeing these very students challenge this is what is intriguing.” 

But CUNY, too, occupies a unique space in the political ecosystem, Jamal says.  “I believe that’s where the true power and unity lies—in the hands of the working-class students, who have the most to lose.”


Protesters at the CUNY encampment, holding up flares, gather at the camp's center for a rally of chanting, song, and prayer, April 28, 2024.  (Photo: Sarah Baum / The Progressive Magazine)

Mainstream media institutions have often failed to acknowledge the contributions from student organizers at public institutions like CUNY. One of the most glaring signs of this disparate coverage comes in The New York Times. It wasn’t until the CUNY camp was destroyed that the Times bothered to write a story focusing on it: a mere 164-word dispatch. There were no interviews.

In other words, on the night of the raid, CUNY’s hometown paper of record relegated the largest single-day arrest of any student encampment at the time—not only in the city but in the country—to fewer words than there were protesters detained during said raid. (There were more than 170 total arrests at CUNY that night versus 112 at Columbia, respectively.)

The Times did follow up with a more comprehensive report of about 1,200 words—three days later. In that same time, the outlet published at least ten pieces focusing primarily on Columbia. A spokesperson for The New York Times did not reply to a request for comment.

While there were incidents at Columbia not seen at CUNY—the presence of the Proud Boys, the discharge of a gun—students at both encampments suffered similar forms of police brutality, including the use of pepper spray as well as violent arrest tactics that resulted in protesters being hospitalized.

The Manhattan district attorney also largely charged students at Columbia and CCNY protestors for the same alleged crimes. However, those charged with occupying a Columbia building are facing misdemeanors, while those charged with occupying CCNY buildings were hit with felonies. The penalties for the latter are far more severe. 

“I do not think there was a substantial difference between the conduct that was occurring at CUNY and the conduct that was occurring at Columbia,” says Moira Meltzer-Cohen, a National Lawyers Guild attorney and CUNY adjunct. “I can't speculate about why that happened, but what I can say is, we all know how it looks.”

The Manhattan district attorney did not reply to a request for comment.

Despite this differential treatment, both campuses found themselves at the center of a skewed narrative about the Palestinian liberation movement. New York’s Mayor Eric Adams alleged that campus protests were organized by “outside agitators,” especially those at CCNY, based on an NYPD report which found that “60 percent of arrests” at that encampment were “unaffiliated with these schools.” It was accompanied by a pie chart comparing “students arrested” versus “non-students arrested.”

What the mayor (and the NYPD) did not do is define “unaffiliated.” Alumni, faculty, and staff appear to have been dubbed “outside agitators” by the police report’s standards. And law enforcement at CCNY, where the encampment was a broad coalition of activists from across the CUNY system, appear to have counted only City College students as “affiliated”—which meant students and faculty from the other twenty-four CUNY schools were cast as fodder for the “outside agitator” narrative. 


A member of Columbia University's Gaza solidarity encampment walks through the rows of tents on the campus lawn in New York City, April 26, 2024.  (Photo: Sarah Baum / The Progressive Magazine)

A member of Columbia University's Gaza solidarity encampment walks through the rows of tents on the campus lawn in New York City, April 26, 2024.

On the flip side, Columbia organizers both benefited and suffered from the droves of outsiders that came to its gates. National and international press arrived every day by the dozens, allowing students to spread their message and document critical events as they happened. Columbia students could summon hundreds of protesters to protect the campus and support their cause with a single Tweet. 

National political figures also flocked to Columbia, such as Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. She told The Progressive at the scene that the U.S.-backed war on Gaza is “against the overwhelming opinion of the American people . . . [and] a real commentary on how far afield our government has gone from the will of the people.”

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, and U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Ilhan Omar (whose daughter was arrested at Columbia) also made an appearance at Columbia’s encampment; the former to deride the protesters, and the latter two to show their support. 

Not one of the national lawmakers seem to have found the time to make the trip a few minutes north, to the rapidly-growing encampment at CCNY.

Zionists and rightwing commentators have honed in on Columbia coverage as ammunition, dubbing all student protesters “entitled rich kids.” 

“One of the reasons why Columbia has been a focal point is the fact that it fits into a narrative that’s very common among far-right media outlets,” said Allie Wong, a Ph.D. student at the Columbia Journalism School who studies extremist propaganda in media. Wong was among those arrested during her school’s raid. 

This narrative, she says, paints all student pro-Palestine organizers as “privileged” and “overeducated” youth who are out-of-touch with the reality of most Americans. Columbia—an Ivy League institution in the heart of New York City—upholds confirmation bias for such claims. 

Matriculating Columbia sophomore Dalia Darazim, who is Palestinian and lost family from the bombings in Gaza, said coverage of American student activists (and the brutality they face) is important, but that more attention needs to be paid to the heart of the matter: Right now, Palestinians are being indiscriminately maimed, slaughtered, and starved by Israeli forces, including the 600,000 Palestinian children who are seeking refuge in Rafah. 

“When we make this one-school specific, then we're allowed to nitpick what this certain school does . . . making this about one school,” Darazim says.

She and other activists emphasize the fact that there are no college encampments in Palestine—because there are no universities left standing.

“This narrative that this is a certain group of ‘privileged’ students—it’s trying to delegitimize just how far-reaching this is,” Darazim says. “Overwhelmingly, the student body does stand with Palestine.”

Editor’s Note: The Progressive agreed to use pseudonyms for Iqra, Jordan, and others at the encampment, who cited concerns about implicating themselves in pending legal cases as well as avoiding the doxxing and harassment experienced by fellow activists.