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Columbia backs down on punishing protesters

By David Judd | April 6, 2007 | Page 16

STUDENT ACTIVISTS who stood up to the anti-immigrant Minutemen at Columbia University have won a victory.

After weeks of a dishonest press hysteria about the protest that confronted Minutemen leader Jim Gilchrist and university threats to take harsh action against student activists who participated, administrators have handed out relatively minor punishments against eight students--"as lenient as university rules allow," one publication noted.

However, though the Minutemen--who demanded that the activists who interrupted their event be expelled--were denied, Columbia officials singled out three Latino students for a more severe "censure," versus "disciplinary warnings" for the other five students, all of other races.

The controversy stems from a meeting last October 4, when two students carried a banner reading "No human being is illegal" in Spanish, English and Arabic onto a stage at Columbia where Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist was speaking. The two students, members of the International Socialist Organization, were quickly joined by other immigrant rights supporters.

Minutemen supporters retaliated by physically attacking the protesters. Video footage from a Spanish-language TV station that circulated on the Internet showed a Latino student being kicked in the shoulders and face.

But the New York media immediately blamed the pro-immigrant rights protesters for the violence, and accused them of silencing "free speech." University President Lee Bollinger condemned protesters as "brutes" in one of several hostile statements.

None of these condemnations mentioned the politics or actions of Gilchrist and his supporters--nor did they defend of the "free speech" of the immigrant rights activists who wanted to make a statement against bigotry.

The Columbia Daily Spectator later reported that the university reimbursed the College Republicans for the cost of hosting the event and formally apologized to the Minutemen--even though the media eventually acknowledged they were the ones who used violence.

Meanwhile, though on stage for less than five minutes, the protesters faced almost half a year of disciplinary proceedings, under charges of endangering others and a blanket accusation of "contributing to the disruption" of a university function.

The cases were heard in private, with the administrative "prosecutor" making a presentation to the dean, who made the decision. University officials described the secret hearings as "educational, not adversarial," which seemed to its targets to be no more than an excuse to avoid granting students any rights.

Ultimately, eight students were given punishments that will result in a temporary mark on their transcripts and a more severe minimum penalty for future violations. In keeping with their conduct throughout, administrators refused to explain what possible reason other than race three students were singled out for the more severe punishment of "censure."

In the face of the Minutemen campaign, fueled by the media, for a more severe response, this limited victory for activists was due to the hard work of dozens of people and thousands of letter-writers who let the university know that harsher punishment would cause a backlash.

Protesters remain unapologetic about their actions. "The Minutemen have emerged from irrelevance into the mainstream of the debate around immigration because they have been given legitimacy by politicians and the media," said Monique Dols, one of the students who protested onstage. "Speaking unopposed at Columbia University would have certainly furthered this legitimization, helped recruit for their violent cause, and contributed to a hostile atmosphere for students and workers of color on campus."

As another protester, Karina Garcia, wrote in a January op-ed article in the Spectator, "I am proud to say that [the Minutemen] and other racist and fascist groups are not welcome at Columbia."

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