Hamilton Hall Then and Now  Published on June 11, 2024

written by Lora Wondolowski for the AAPOV

Just over fifty-six years ago, students and community members occupied Hamilton Hall at Columbia University to protest the plans to build a gymnasium in Harlem that would have included segregated entrances.  Protesters were met with tear gas and force from the New York Police Department (NYPD). Two years later, protests over expansion of US involvement in the Vietnam War would erupt on dozens of campuses around the country.  The mostly peaceful protests were met with unprecedented police force and intimidation on many campuses. These same scenes have repeated themselves this spring as students have erected encampments to protest the Israeli war on Gaza and call for divestment from militarization and companies that back the war. 

More than 130 campuses around the country have participated in protests since the fall calling for a cease-fire and end to the war in Gaza.  Some protests led to arrests, including 57 who occupied an administration building at UMass in October.  This spring saw an escalation after Columbia brought in the NYPD to oust protesters occupying Hamilton Hall.  Overnight, encampments sprung up around the country in support of Columbia students.  To date, more than 3,000 students have been arrested on at least 64 campuses nationwide. 

Locally, students at UMass Amherst have set up encampments twice over the last few weeks.  The first encampment sprung up on April 29th in solidarity with similar encampments on college campuses across the nation.  After pressure from the University and threats of police force, protest organizers dismantled the encampment the same day. One week later, the encampment was set up again amidst peaceful demonstrations calling for an end to the assault on civilians in Gaza and requests for divestment.  Later that evening, hundreds of state, campus, and local police arrived in riot gear and arrested more than 130 protestors, including faculty, students, and community members.  This was one of the largest mass arrests seen in the country. 

The Peace Development Fund was founded in Amherst by anti-war activists in the early 1980’s interested in funding peace and justice organizing.  That same spirit continues today.  As an organization, we support the right to peacefully protest and call for change in this country.  It is a fundamental right that is protected by the constitution.  It is unconscionable for colleges to allow such massive displays of force to break up peaceful encampments.  Many of them are Jewish students and students of color, whose communities have experience with police trauma.  These overreactions have only led to larger protests and increased tension. 

Yet there are examples in other communities of administrations taking the students seriously and listening.  This is what leadership looks like. Schools like Northwestern and Brown have reached agreements to take student demands into consideration.  Adults often complain that young people aren’t getting involved or doing enough, yet the Black Lives Matter and pro-Palestinian protests are vivid examples of young people leading and demanding change.  They are right to be impatient when Palestinian Health agencies estimate more than 35,000 casualties have occurred so far.  Why aren’t we outraged? 

Peace is not easy.  It takes leadership and humility to meet the challenges of the day and treat the protesters with dignity.  They are showing leadership and should be met with respect and not force and violence.  I recognize that the situation is fraught with politics and long histories, but violence is not the solution to stop violence.  I hope that UMass Chancellor Reyes will listen to their calls for divestment, halt mass arrests, and drop charges against the protestors. The path to peace is there if we have the courage to take it. 

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