Jewish Students Hide in Library During Palestinian Demonstration at Cooper Union

By Reuvain Borchardt

The Cooper Union Foundation building on Astor Place in Greenwich Village. (Ajay Suresh/Wikimedia)

NEW YORK — Jewish students at Cooper Union are demanding answers and threatening legal action after they say they feared for their safety after their Palestinian-supporting classmates demonstrated in the school building and tried breaking into a library where the Jewish students were studying under guard.

“Yesterday we saw something unprecedented in New York City,” Gerard Felitti, the students’ attorney, said at a press conference Thursday outside the college’s Greenwich Village campus. “We saw a gang of students who were protesting outside come into a school … pounding at the [library] door, menacing [the Jewish students], looking to gain access, and G-d knows what they were looking to do. Students felt afraid for their safety. They feared for their lives. This is unacceptable in New York City. This is unacceptable anywhere in the United States.”

The “Student Walkout for Palestine Liberation,” held on the 19th day of war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas, began as scheduled at 1:00 p.m., as part of a coordinated pro-Palestinian demonstration across New York and nationwide. At Cooper Union, seventy students walked out of the school’s Foundation Building (the arts and architecture school), and began demonstrating outside, chanting pro-Palestinian slogans and holding signs. Twenty Jewish students counterprotested, most silently holding signs.

This account of Wednesday’s incident comes from Hamodia interviews Thursday with NYPD spokesperson Sgt. Carlos Nieves and more than a half-dozen Cooper Union students and parents, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity as they said they fear for their and their children’s safety, as well as a timeline of events provided by Cooper Union to media on Thursday night.

Around 2:00 p.m., while the protest was ongoing outside, a fire alarm went off in the Foundation Building. The building was evacuated and FDNY arrived, but no smoke was found, and people were allowed to return to the building. Cooper Union says it is investigating the fire alarm.  

At 3:45 p.m., after people were allowed to return to the building, the protestors moved inside.

According to the school and the NYPD, the protestors were not allowed in by the administration but forced their way in.

Cooper Union said the students “pushed their way into the Foundation Building.” Police spokesperson Sgt. Carlos Nieves said, “These students forced their way past school security.”

Once the pro-Palestinian protest moved inside, the counterprotesting Jewish students dispersed, with some going home and others going to the library to study.

The pro-Palestinian protestors went to the top floor, to the office area of the school president, Laura Sparks.

“They’re yelling and screaming, banging, political statements,” Nieves said. “At no time was people’s lives threatened; they didn’t threaten about, you know, destruction of property, things like that. The president locked the door to her office … and she chose to allow this demonstration to continue. She remained in her office while the students remained outside. The president says that she did not feel threatened. She did not feel scared. She chose to allow the demonstration to continue.”

According to Felitti, attorney for the pro-Israel Lawfare Project representing the Jewish students, Sparks was led out of a back exit, which Felitti described as “being funneled out through a tunnel.” Cooper Union says Sparks “was in the building until after the protesting students dispersed.”

The protestors left Sparks’ office area after some time (approximately 25 minutes according to Nieves, up to 50 minutes according to Cooper Union.)

Once the protestors left the upper floor and began heading downstairs, security placed two guards at the doors to the library, where a number of Jewish students were studying.

According to students and posts on social media, the library doors were locked to prevent the protestors from getting inside.

According to Cooper Union, “The library doors were never locked,” but “when Cooper Union staff anticipated the protesting students’ departure, they closed the library doors for approximately 20 minutes so that the protesting students would not bring the protest into the library.”

When the protestors passed the library, they banged on the walls and doors — and, the Jewish students believed, tried to get inside.

Video quickly circulated on social media of boys in yarmulkes and girls in long skirts in a nearly empty library while pro-Palestinian protestors were banging on the door and the glass walls separating the library from the hall, yelling slogans like “Free Palestine.”

One tweet from Twitter user Jake Novak that quickly went viral read, “BREAKING NOW: my sources tell me several Jewish students @cooperunion are currently locked in the school library as a pro Hamas rally outside of the cooper Union building learnt the Jews were afraid and sitting in the library, then brought the protest inside and are barricading all exits. Police have been called for 40 min and are afraid to get involved. Security locked the students in as they are worried they cannot protect the Jews rn.”

Some of these students called their parents. Others called 911. They said they felt threatened and scared.

One student’s mother said her daughter “felt that [the protestors] were trying to get in like to break the windows and to get in there and do something. They were frightened.” She said the protestors were chanting “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Security offered the students an escape out a back exit, but they declined on principle.

Another Jewish mother, whose son was hiding on the fourth floor during the demonstration, said that the students who posted Palestinian flags in the school in recent days include several who had attended Shabbat dinner at her home.

“Every single student that was allowed inside and banged on the window or the door must be expelled immediately,” said the mother.

Students and their parents also expressed anger at what they describe as no police presence inside the school building, as well as inadequate school security staff.

Nieves, the police spokesperson, said that there in fact were plainclothes Community Affairs officers inside the building (in addition to uniformed officers at the outdoor protest), but he could not state whether those officers entered the building as soon as the protestors did or only came inside later.

As to why the officers were not in uniform, Nieves said, “When it comes to protests, there are times that the officers are not in uniform in order so they can speak to the people that are protesting, because some people do not like the police uniform, so at times it is easier to speak to protestors when not uniformed.” 

Parents who spoke to Hamodia said they were upset to hear the police had chosen not to have a uniformed presence inside the building.

“I appreciate the police; they put themselves on the line every day,” said one mother. “But that’s not an answer, ‘Oh they were in plainclothes.’”

“It makes me feel angry,” said another mother. “My child should that know she’s being protected. How dare you have them in plainclothes and not identify themselves?”

“So they don’t wear uniforms because they want to make protestors feel comfortable,” fumed a mother, who asked to be identified only as Emilie. “What about making the Jewish students feel safe?”

Nieves acknowledged that “one of the complaints that we had [was] that people were not aware that there were police officers there,” and said that “moving forward, officers that work in the Community Affairs Bureau will be identifiable by their light blue jackets.”

At Thursday’s press conference — which was interrupted for several minutes by a student protesting that it was “fake news” — Felitti said he would be exploring the possibility of pushing for criminal charges, such as for menacing, against the protestors, as well as suing Cooper Union for civil-rights violations for failing to adequately protect the Jewish students.

“We need to hold the university accountable for its failure,” Felitti said. “We need the university to take action to implement change, [to ensure] that this does not happen again. And we need prosecutions to send the message that this is unacceptable on our city streets, in our college campuses or anywhere in New York City.”

Nieves said Cooper Union has not pressed charges against any of its students who brought the demonstration indoors.

“No one suffered physical injuries. There was no property damage,” Nieves said. Acknowledging that students felt threatened, he said, “With everything that’s going on, I would be scared, too,” but, “Nobody was injured.”

Nieves said there were six 911 calls made related to the protest. “Those 911 calls were answered by the officers who were on the scene. So had these officers felt that their safety or the safety of anyone else inside that building was was threatened was … in jeopardy, they would have call for additional resources.”

Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, who organized the press conference and whose Brooklyn district includes the homes of several Cooper Union students, said the students were too “terrified” to attend the public press conference outside the school.

“Could you imagine this happening with any other ethnic minority in New York City?” Vernikov said, calling for Sparks to resign.

Several parents said they are unsure whether their children want to return to Cooper Union.

In a statement posted Thursday to the Cooper Union website, the school said, “While there is an important role for peaceful protest, there is no place at Cooper Union for activities that disrupt students’ ability to learn, faculty’s ability to teach, or anyone’s sense of safety and security on our campus. This is a place of shared learning, and we must hold that commitment and the ability for all students, faculty, and staff to feel safe on our campus. There is no place at Cooper for hateful and violent language or actions. These violate our commitment to creating an open, respectful, inclusive community. Protests must respect time, place, and manner conditions so we can uphold our commitment to make all in our community feel safe and welcome.”

In a statement sent to media on Thursday night, Cooper Union indicated it may take action against students.

“While we support our students’ right to peacefully protest and express themselves, a walkout on Wednesday reached an unacceptable level when protesting students entered a campus building and disrupted the learning environment,” the school wrote.

“Cooper is a place of shared learning, and we must uphold our commitment to ensure that all students, faculty, and staff feel safe on our campus. While there is room for productive debate and dissent here, there is no place for any discriminatory, hateful, or threatening acts of any kind. 

“We are reaching out to all of our affected communities to listen to and address their concerns. We are reviewing reports and footage from yesterday’s events and will initiate any necessary actions consistent with our policies. We have already increased our security and are working with NYPD and our external security partner to make sure our students, faculty, and staff feel safe and protected.”

Additional reporting by Matis Glenn

Listen Below as NYPD spokesman Sgt. Carlos Nieves speaks with Hamodia on Thursday about the NYPD response to the Cooper Union protest Wednesday

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