Despite initial complaints from student leaders that they were not given enough time to plan a response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia, the campus quickly mobilized, and many students have united for a large speak-out today.
The campus is ready. Metal barriers line Broadway and the south side of 114th Street. University President Lee Bollinger’s house has a public safety vehicle positioned outside, and students will need CUIDs to enter campus. Security guards and University officials will be stationed outside. Policemen on the scene, though not official sources, have reported that Broadway will close on Monday at 9 a.m. from 114th to 120th streets for Ahmadinejad’s visit, with a reopening similarly unannounced.
Inside the Gates
Soon after news of today’s speech broke, students banded together to form the Columbia Coalition–intended as an intermediary between student groups and administrators–to plan a massive speak-out on Low Plaza today.
At the public forum, various student organizations have been allotted time to state their opinions on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political views and his appearance at Columbia.
The main forum today will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Low Plaza. The participants will break at 1:10 p.m. as everyone moves to South Field to watch the event on a video truck, while another simulcast airs in the Schapiro Davis Center Auditorium and the video truck, according to Rosemary Keane, assistant vice president for strategic communications and planning in the Office of Student Services. The speeches will continue on Low Plaza at 3 p.m.
The coalition is working to avoid divisions between groups by acting primarily as a scheduler and staying away from content issues, stressing that the event is a “rally” or a “forum,” and not a “protest.” The result is that while many groups were hesitant to align with the coalition, Aaron Krieger, CC ’10 and one of the primary organizers of the event, said that the Columbia Coalition Against the War was the only one that had initially refused to participate.
Andrew Tillet-Saks, CC ’09 and a representative for CCAW, explained that the forum “is merely blind, hysterical vilification of Ahmadinejad without considering the complex international issues at hand.” Later, CCAW leader and International Socialist Organization President David Judd, SEAS ’08, announced CCAW’s decision to speak at the forum, saying, “We still think the forum itself is a mistake and it will turn into a protest even though we realize the organizers don’t intend it to be.”
Despite participating in the forum, CCAW–with the support of Filasteen, Students for a Democratic Society, and Students for Justice in the Middle East–has since called for students to form a picket next to the Columbia Coalition forum to emphasize their position that, “despite their intentions,” the speakers’ message could lend to other arguments favoring war in Iran.
“In these circumstances, we think it is imperative that there be a clear anti-war voice,” the group said in a statement.
As a plethora of students and groups issued their own statements regarding the visit, most leaned toward favoring the event while vehemently disagreeing with the speaker’s views.
Jordan Hirsch, CC ’10, and David Feith, CC ’09 and editor of campus Jewish affairs journal The Current, were among students who took their criticisms further, writing in a statement that Ahmadinejad does not deserve a podium at the World Leaders Forum.
“The issue here is not free speech. That is a red herring,” the statement said. “The issue is values: What standards should Columbia use in giving out valuable, prestigious official speaking invitations? Whatever standards apply, they should preclude an invitation to an individual who promotes hatred and violence as Ahmadinejad does.”
Others criticized Columbia for its lack of notice to students.
Students will be unable to directly address Ahmadinejad, with all questions being asked by Bollinger or John Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. “How can students benefit fully from the dialogue if they are not allowed to participate in it completely? All of these conditions combined demonstrate a fundamental distrust of students on the part of the administration,” said a statement by Josh Rosner, president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, and Jonathan Siegel, CC ’08 and chair of the Student Governing Board.
Krieger also noted his disappointment with the administration’s handling of the invitation, but added, “it has been bending over backwards to support the coalition and make sure that free speech from everyone is included.”
Student groups participating in the Columbia Coalition rally as of press time included Global Justice, LionPAC, The Jester, Baha’i, Hillel, the College Democrats, the College Repulicans, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Everyone Allied Against Homophobia, Amnesty International, and representatives from SIPA, GAYAVA, the American Civil Liberties Union, Students for a Democratic Society, the Columbia Queer Alliance, Hillel Culture, Gender Youth, Koleinu, Revolution Club, as well as several unaffiliated individuals.
Other student organizations, including the student councils and the Activities Board at Columbia, are taking a neutral stance by serving in an advisory capacity for the Columbia Coalition and as liaisons among the nascent coalition, the administration, and student groups.
Outside the Gates
As groups as disparate as Columbia alumni and presidential candidates have condemned Columbia’s invitation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, many groups plan to step these protests up tomorrow when he arrives.
“The protest is in direct opposition to the vitriol espoused by the Iranian president, as well as the invitation extended by Columbia University president Lee Bollinger for Ahmadinejad to appear at the university,” organizers wrote in a statement. “Students and community activists aim to show Ahmadinejad that the young future leadership of America will not tolerate his genocidal threats, nuclear program, suppression of human rights, denial of the Holocaust, and inflammatory demeanor.”
In other forms of protest, fliers calling for alumni to end donations read, “We will brake Bollinger in half,” while Eastern Michigan University student Roman Shaykevich created a Facebook group called “Boycott Columbia University” that equivocated Columbia to Al-Qaeda. A flier on 113th Street and Broadway touted Zionists as “thugs [that] steal free speech . Come Atone.” Rumors all weekend have suggested that protesters were planning to march on the University president’s house, but a public affairs officer stationed outside the office said she was unaware of any planned disruption.
Getting a jump on today’s protests, elected officials and Jewish leaders called a press conference outside the gates today to condemn Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia.
“All of us today ask that President Bollinger come to his senses and withdraw Ahmadinejad’s invitation,” said City Councilman David Weprin, D-Queens. In the event that his plea fails to sway Bollinger, he said, “I ask that the Board of Trustees of Columbia University intervene and force President Bollinger to rescind the invitation.” Chairman of the board William Campbell defended Bollinger’s decision in the New York Times last week.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, D-Brooklyn, stepped the rhetoric up a notch. “It is insane, it is immoral, it is outrageous, it is an insult to every New Yorker, it is an insult to my mother who wears the number of Auschwitz on her arm,” he said of the invitation. “President Bollinger is out of his mind.”
“You know what my dream is? That Ahmadinejad never gets into this University because New Yorkers by the thousands stop him,” Hikind said.
Erin Durkin contributed to this article