NYPD investigating chemical attack on Columbia students at pro-Palestinian protest

The New York City Police Department is looking into accusations that students were attacked with chemical spray last week during a pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University, prompting many people to seek medical attention.

The student described the spraying as taking place during a student-led divestment rally against the continuing war in Gaza at the Ivy League school Friday afternoon. The protestors said they sprayed an unknown substance in the air, causing a terrible odor. Some students reported nausea and stinging eyes as a result of the chemical exposure.

The Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper, originally reported on the incident during a “divestment now” rally on the university’s library steps.

A woman reported the assault to police on Saturday, the day after it occurred, while five others reported the attack on Sunday, according to an email from the NYPD on Tuesday. There have been no arrests made.

Dennis Mitchell, Columbia’s interim provost, said in an email to students on Monday that the institution had blacklisted the people accused of carrying out the deadly assault. He did not say whether the accused assailants were students, and the university declined to provide any information.

Mitchell stated in the email that demonstrators reported being sprayed with “a foul-smelling substance” that forced students to seek medical attention. The institution is collaborating with the NYPD, which is overseeing the investigation into “what appear to have been serious crimes, possibly hate crimes.”

On Sunday, the Columbia Department of Public Safety announced that it was collaborating with the NYPD and federal officials to investigate the event.

The FBI declined to comment on Tuesday. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office did not immediately reply to inquiries.

Some local authorities expressed their concerns through social media posts.

“No student should be afraid to express themselves on campus or elsewhere in our city,” City Councilmember Shaun Abreu stated on Monday.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who has previously shown sympathy for pro-Israeli activists, condemned the incident on Threads, a social media website.

“Violence against protestors is despicable and unacceptable,” he remarked on Tuesday. “The perpetrators should face serious consequences.”

According to the Spectator, three students identified the weapon as “skunk,” a chemical used by the Israeli military on Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank.

‘Beyond terrible’

According to a statement released on Monday by Columbia student groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, eight students were hospitalized, and dozens more required immediate medical assistance.

They characterized the assailants as former Israeli military personnel, which USA TODAY could not independently verify.

The student groups urged the institution and elected authorities in the United States, who have previously come to protect Israeli supporters on college campuses, to look into the incident as attacks against Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim American students increased.

The university reportedly chastised the student groups for organizing an unapproved event that breached school standards designed to guarantee proper safety precautions are in place.

“The double standard is clear,” the United statement stated. “Who will protect students who are advocating for safety and freedom for Palestinians.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations New York chapter issued a statement condemning the assault on Saturday.

“The alleged use of a chemical agent on the grounds of a NYC college campus is beyond heinous,” CAIR-NY executive director Afaf Nasher said in a statement. “It is an escalation of violence launched against peaceful protesters by individuals who seek to inflict harm and undermine the principles of peaceful dialogue and dissent upheld in any democratic society.”

Columbia had previously reduced funding or the ability to conduct events for Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace throughout the academic year.

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