In April, as a Political Science student at Columbia, we stand on the shoulders of the university’s 1968 protests of the Vietnam War. This month should be a time of reflection and solidarity. Instead, I write this from my apartment during a campus lockdown, the morning after hundreds of armed police officers raided the main campus and arrested over a hundred students for the second time in two weeks. This time, causing physical injuries to both student protestors and bystanders and firing a gun inside Hamilton Hall.

On April 18th, 2024, as I sat in my university writing class, I couldn’t focus on the discussion. I interrupted and voiced my concerns about the heavy police presence on campus and particularly its impact on students of color. Almost instantaneously an eerie silence fell over the room as our professor asked us all to check our Columbia emails. My stomach sank as I read how President Shafik had just authorized the NYPD to arrest over 100 students occupying the West Lawn in solidarity with Gaza. My friend and I rushed out of class only to witness the appalling treatment of our fellow classmates, dragged off the lawn and thrown into correctional buses by armed police in full SWAT gear – truly a haunting experience that affirmed the administration’s extreme apathy for its students.

Paradoxically, April 18th was also the university’s annual Surf and Turf Dinner. The
stark contrast between the two worlds that Columbia students live in was on full display. While protests continued on the East Lawn, where over 100 students were arrested, suspended, evicted from their housing and left effectively homeless, others enjoyed seafood platters featuring all-you-can-eat buttered lobster, cocktail shrimp, steak, and fine desserts. Blissfully detached behind the floor-to-ceiling windows of Alfred Lerner Hall, they witness their classmates on the East Lawn rush to set up a second solidarity encampment. The reality of this surreal dichotomy served as a poignant reminder for many Black and Brown students that their $90,000 tuition not only funds gluttonous seafood dinners, but lines the pockets of Columbia administrators pushing a very fascist and violent agenda.

As a Black student in predominantly white spaces, I operate in two distinct worlds. To successfully navigate both, I compartmentalize my emotions. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness illustrates this dialectic struggle well. Du Bois’ posits double consciousness as the internal conflict Black people experience as they reconcile their Black identity with the expectations and perceptions of a predominantly white society. The second consciousness is sort of a second social identity or mental embodiment of the larger oppressive society they find themselves in, coinciding with a feeling of profound discomfort in being one’s authentic self. There are two different worlds students live in at Columbia University. Many Black and Brown students wrestle with the impossible reconciliation of the two every day.

James Baldwin’s words echo in my head, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” As a Black student studying Political Science at Columbia University, I am seething. To navigate and succeed in the two different worlds at this university feels like an impossible-functioning contradiction. Baldwin’s reflection is as timeless as it is urgent. What does it mean to hold diametrically opposed experiences at the same time? Historically and by design, ivory tower institutions like Columbia make students of color feel out of place, while the diversity of their student body clearly illustrates their interest, or lack thereof, in prioritizing true inclusion and anti-racist policies. W.E.B. Du Bois, in his 1897 essay collection, posed a question: ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ Having studied abroad at Oxford and Cambridge, and now at Columbia, I can say with confidence that my existence at these top universities was a problem.

Although celebrated by the university in retrospect, the 1968 Vietnam War protests were a major problem at the time. In their aftermath, Columbia swore to never lock the gates of campus again. Now, not only are the gates locked, but guns are drawn, and students are thrown into ‘correctional buses’ to be charged with Class B misdemeanors.

I’m proud of the students protesting Palestinian genocide and calling for the university to divest from their financial holdings tied to Israel. The students have three core demands: divestment, financial transparency, and amnesty for all students and faculty disciplined for their involvement in university protests. I am embarrassed and ashamed by the administration’s fascist decision to militarize campus in response to these protests. The new police presence puts all of us students, especially those of color, in a direct line of danger. Black students even more so, as Black people are more likely to be killed by the police than any other demographic and are killed at higher rates.

Because I grew up in Oakland, CA I’m familiar with police in schools and the resulting fear and anxiety their presence comes with. I grew up around former Black Panthers, and have actively participated in community-led political education, decolonization programs, and protests. The Black Panther Party has stood in solidarity with Palestinian activists since the 1960s, recognizing parallels between the oppression of Black communities in the U.S. and Palestinians under occupation. These parallels of Western imperial violence extend far beyond the U.S. and Palestine. In Sudan, the UN calls the ongoing genocide “one of the worst human rights disasters in recent memory,” while in eastern Congo, nearly 6 million people have been displaced, urgently needing aid, and women and girls are subjected to sexual violence on a massive scale. Globally these atrocities highlight the pervasive nature of systemic oppression and the need for international solidarity.

Despite my experience and awareness, I have never had an educational experience like the one I am currently having at Columbia this semester.

You should expect various forms of racism when you go to a predominantly white
institution (PWI) founded on a white supremacist ideology. What I didn’t expect was to be policed even more than my adolescence in Oakland. Elite PWIs have disturbing remnants of slave plantations, more than one might think, and never has this been more apparent than with the police checkpoints at each building’s entrance and exit, including Butler Library. One thing has been made very clear, the militarization of campus is to
protect university property, not keep students safe.

What I am still trying to wrap my head around is my new experience walking to class,
a route now accompanied by more than 200 public safety officers, police,
private security firms, and the FBI, with multiple drones surveilling me overhead. While police and news helicopters circle from above. Not only is our reality as students at Columbia now absurdly militarized, but the administration expects students to continue ‘business as usual’ which is nothing more than encouraging a dystopian cognitive dissonance.

Let this serve as your invitation to begin organizing the material improvement of the communities you’re a part of. Revolutionary activist and former chairman of the SNCC, Kwame Ture urges us to use mobilization as a drive toward larger organization. There is an important distinction between organization and mobilization that you must understand to be materially effective. Mobilization lends itself to being reactionary and provides temporary alleviation, while organization is a thorough never-ending process that seeks qualitative change over time. Revolutionaries focus on changing the system that produces and accelerates issues, rather than mobilizing around individual issues themselves.

Today, I implore you to go beyond mobilization and organize as if your life depends on it, because for many of us, it does. 

By guest author George Hofstetter (Founder and CEO of GHTech Inc., and student at Columbia University)