"Boogeyman narrative": Columbia professors call out Eric Adams over "outside agitators" trope

"A pathetic attempt to discredit the political investments and moral conscience of this movement," professor says

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published May 2, 2024 5:25PM (EDT)

New York City Mayor Eric Adams (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
New York City Mayor Eric Adams (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City mayor Eric Adams and New York Police Department officials insisted this week that the protest occupation of a Columbia University hall, escalating months-long pro-Palestine demonstrations at the institution, was carried out by "outside agitators." 

But when repeatedly pressed by media for evidence to support the claim, the Democratic mayor and officials bobbed and weaved, with Adams arguing, reports The New York Times' Dana Rubinstein, on CNBC Thursday morning that the percentage of "outside agitators" compared to the number of student protesters "doesn't matter" following a spiel about the danger a professor espousing misinformation poses to young people. 

"The real outside agitators in this situation have been the conservative congressional members who have showed up to campus."

“I know that there are those who are attempting to say: ‘Well, the majority of people may have been students.’ You don’t have to be the majority to influence and co-opt an operation,” Adams said at a Wednesday press conference, as reported by Politico, while warning of a global movement working to radicalize young people. “And so if you want to play the word 'police,' you could do so. I’m going to play the New York City Police.”

Adams also suggested that the alleged outsiders had taught the students to barricade themselves in an effort to evade police removal attempts, the Associated Press notes

Columbia faculty members, however, rebuff that claim and the notion that students are being influenced to escalate their protests, with some instead emphasizing the students' own desire to protest. 

"I think it's a pathetic attempt to discredit the political investments and moral conscience of this movement," Dr. Shana Redmond, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, told Salon. "I think that the investment in paying attention to people beyond the university discredits the fact that these are adults. These students of Columbia University are adults who are making very principled decisions about how they want to live in the world and the kinds of impacts that they want to make."

Redmond, who participated in a faculty protest against the police presence at the campus, added that "the fact that they're trying to blame someone else, as if these young adults could not have come to this reasonable position on the genocide in Palestine on their own, is an absolute fabrication and [Adams] should be ashamed of himself for having insulted their intelligence in this way."

Adams and NYPD officials' "outside agitators" claim, according to Politico, has served as a justification for the mass arrests and offers cover to Columbia president Minouche Shafik, who requested police presence on campus to clear the encampment and through to graduation. Droves of NYPD officers entered Columbia's campus Tuesday night in riot gear, removing students from the Hamilton Hall building they had seized the night before. Officers would go on to arrest nearly 300 people that night, between the Columbia campus and the City College of New York, less than a mile north. 

Police brass identified other tactics they argued could only be the work of professionals, including protesters sporting "black bloc attire," forming barricades inside the hall, breaking windows and blocking cameras. They also pointed to a social media post indicating that a woman with ties to a group the State Department has designated a terrorist organization had been present on campus, Politico notes. 

That woman, Nahla Al-Arian, told The Associated Press Wednesday that Adams had misrepresented her role in the student protests and the facts about her ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group through her husband, Sami Al-Arian, a former prominent Palestinian activist and computer engineering professor, who made the social media post. Her husband was arrested in 2003 on charges of supporting the group but was not convicted. His case stayed in "legal limbo" for years, the AP notes, with Sami Al-Arian later accepting a plea deal for aiding the group. He was deported to Turkey in 2015.

Nahla Al-Arian told the outlet that she wasn't on Columbia's campus this week, was not among the arrested protesters and has not been accused of a crime. Instead, she said she visited Columbia briefly on April 25 to see the encampment while visiting the city and sat on the lawn but did not speak directly to any protesters. 

Redmond said that several people visited Columbia's campus in the days the encampment stood, "many of whom came in solidarity" and "some of whom came to share about what they know, having been in student movements in prior decades." Alumni of the 1968 sit-ins and occupations and intellectuals alike came to campus, she recalled, describing how visitors took the time to sit in "peaceful, deliberate, quiet contemplation with" students, as well as to sing and dance with them. 

"The real outside agitators in this situation have been the conservative congressional members who have showed up to campus. Eric Adams has been an outside agitator who has done nothing but stir up already volatile emotions and communications on this campus as set by the example of our president," Redmond said, noting she doesn't "buy" their arguments.

The NYPD has often rolled out the outside agitator rhetorical tactic in the face of protests, Politico notes, employing the claim in the midst of racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But the history of the claim goes even farther back, as Dr. Mae Ngai, a Columbia professor of Asian American studies and history, told Salon. 

The outside agitator is a "boogeyman narrative" that's used to "shift the blame away from people who are protesting" and has been employed against students who protested the Vietnam War in 1968 — some of whom staged a similar occupation of Hamilton Hall exactly 56 years, to the date, before the latest Columbia occupation — and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was said to have been "controlled by communists," she explained. The "trope" also serves to "discredit any ties" the students may have with community members who align themselves with the students' cause.

Because there has been a swath of protesters outside Columbia's gates, which Ngai said includes "provocateurs who are trying to inflame the situation with antisemitic slogans" which student organizers have denounced, "this outside agitator narrative is also being used to take the most extreme and provocative politics that are on the street and attribute it to the students," she said.

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In an interview with MSNBC, Deputy Commissioner Tarik Sheppard presented chains that NYPD officers had recovered from their raid of Hamilton Hall at Columbia, which protesters used to secure the building, describing them as indicators that professional outsiders had taken over peaceful student protests for Palestine. 

The chain Sheppard displayed appeared to be highly similar to a bike lock the university's Public Safety Department sells to students at a discounted price. The only difference between the chain featured on the website and the one Sheppard presented is that the former is covered by a black printed fabric that appears to be removable.

When shown the image of the Public Safety Department's promoted bike lock by a reporter at the Wednesday press conference, Sheppard insisted that the chains the NYPD had removed from Hamilton were not the same and were a sign of professional work.

Using the chain as evidence of the alleged outside agitators is "laughable," Ngai said. 

"Bicycle locks are just commonplace. Everyone has access to them — Columbia and non-Columbia students alike — so, I mean, if [officials are] presenting that as evidence that's very strange. They should be able to present much more convincing evidence one way or the other," Dr. Michael Thaddeus, a mathematics professor at Columbia University who is currently overseas on sabbatical, told Salon. He added, "Why the police department has to offer this very indirect evidence I have no idea. They arrested everybody. They have their names. They should be able to tell us whether they were outsiders or not."

Adams continued to dodge reporters' questions about the identities of the alleged outside agitators and the number of supposed outsiders respective to student protesters present in media appearances Thursday morning. According to Rubinstein, Adams refused to tell local news outlets Spectrum News NY1, Fox 5 and PIX11 News who and how many he believed were "outside agitators." He later told NPR that a "preliminary review" showed that "over 40 percent of those who participated in Columbia and CCNY protests were not from the school, Rubinstein reported. 

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When approached for comment regarding the 40 percent figure Adams cited on NPR Thursday morning, the mayor's office directed Salon to the NYPD Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information. That office did not respond to a request for comment. 

An NYPD official told CNN Thursday that of the 282 people arrested at either Columbia and CCNY and Tuesday, 134 were not affiliated with either university. The remaining 148 protesters were affiliated with one or the other. 

At Columbia, CNN noted, 80 people arrested had an affiliation with the Ivy League university, compared to only 32 who didn't — numbers that account for arrests made both inside and outside Hamilton Hall. 

While Columbia student protesters have been clear they welcome outside community members, organizers have maintained that their actions have been student-led, according to the AP. Some of those students said they had closely studied tactics employed by the students who took over university buildings in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War. 

In a statement to the AP, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, the coalition behind Columbia's now dismantled encampment comprised of more than 100 student groups, defended its right “to include people from outside the Ivy League or the ivory tower in this global movement” and dubbed the "outside agitator" narrative a "far right smear."

"Columbia’s attempt to repress the movement only strengthens our resolve. We are not finished," the group said in a press release published on its Substack, recounting its occupation of Hamilton Hall, which was renamed "Hind's Hall" by the protesters in honor of a six-year-old Palestinian girl killed by Israel's bombardment of Gaza, which has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians according to the Gaza health ministry.

"The protesters defending Hind’s Hall belong to a rich, beautiful legacy of civil disobedience at Columbia," they added, pointing to the police raid of the April 30, 1968, occupation of Hamilton Hall. "On the 56th anniversary of that day (to the very same day of the week), we met the same militarized adversaries with a resolve fiercer than before."

That's what's most important, Ngai and Redmond argued. Students led the protests, they insist — not an outside agitator but students galvanized to action for Palestinian lives. Ngai drew a comparison to her own experience as an NYU student protesting, striking and occupying buildings in 1969 and 1970 in protest of the Vietnam War.

"I think then, as now, the students [are] on the right side of history, and they lead the way as a moral conscience for the nation," she said, adding: "They don't need outsiders to tell them what to do. They're the leaders."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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