How a 6-Second Video Turned a College Protest Into a National Storm


In it six second video In the clip, pro-Palestinian protesters are heard chanting and banging on the closed doors of the Cooper Union library, one of New York City's leading art, architecture and engineering schools. Inside, a small group of Jewish students watch nervously.

Then the clip ends. It's the briefest snapshot of a terrifying moment at a school of fewer than 1,000 students in Manhattan's East Village.

But within a couple of hours, images of the October 25 meeting spread globally on social networks. The pro-Palestinian protesters had dispersed just minutes later and no one was hurt or arrested, but the story seemed to get more gruesome as it went on. Posts that went viral falsely claimed that the library had been barricaded to protect students who were inside an angry crowd and that police were afraid to get involved.

The Cooper Union protest quickly became, for some, a symbol of growing anti-Semitism on American college campuses during the war between Israel and Hamas. The typically low-profile Cooper Union was mentioned repeatedly in a Republican presidential debate.

Now, amid questions from Congress about how campuses are addressing anti-Semitism, Cooper Union is one of more than a dozen universities under federal investigation following allegations of discrimination.

And with campus speech under an intense public microscope, the library episode and its aftermath show how partisans can repurpose a brief moment, free of context or nuance, in the service of broader political rhetoric during a war in which that information is an important factor. weapon.

“Off-campus groups are very motivated to weaponize these protests,” said Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. But the stakes of campus activism are now dangerous. “What 20 or 30 years ago might have been an incident that no one would know about unless they were there, has now become one that can circulate globally and be a life-changing experience.”

Cooper Union has a proud tradition of activism. Abraham Lincoln gained momentum in his presidential campaign with an anti-slavery speech there in 1860. In 2013, students occupied the university president's office for 65 days to protest a plan to charge tuition at the school, which had always been been free.

But like many universities across the country, the school struggled to respond to the war between Israel and Hamas in a way that satisfied a deeply divided student body.

After the October 7 attacks, Laura Sparks, president of Cooper Union, posted a message expressing outrage over the “violent and deadly terrorist attacks against the Israeli people by Hamas.” But as the death toll in Gaza rose, some students felt the school was not doing enough to recognize Palestinian civilian deaths or the broader context of the war.

Among them was Mathieu Magloire-Wilson, a 21-year-old art student who had just spent five months as an exchange student in Jerusalem.

A New Jersey printmaker and president of the school's Black Student Union, he began printing and distributing small books containing articles about conditions in the Palestinian territories.

Soon, students on both sides of the conflict placed posters and images of Palestinian or Israeli flags throughout campus. Many were shot down.

On October 25, the day of the meeting in the library, the atmosphere on campus was tense.

At 1 p.m. that day, about 70 students left class as part of a nationwide pro-Palestinian student strike, forming a semicircle outside the building and chanting. About 20 pro-Israel counterprotesters lined up between the pro-Palestinian protesters and the school.

Three hours later, about 20 of the pro-Palestinian protesters entered, rushing past security guards who told them to stop, as the video shows, to make demands, including that the university call for a ceasefire and end the protests. its exchange program with Israel. Directly to the president of the university on the seventh floor. Ms. Sparks locked the door, but she told police she did not feel threatened and allowed the protest to continue, police said.

As the protest continued upstairs, some of the pro-Israel protesters entered the library, according to a university official who reviewed security footage.

After almost an hour, the pro-Palestinian protesters descended the stairs and reached the library on the ground floor. A security guard closed the large gray doors and stood outside.

In interviews, protesters said they didn't know who was inside when they reached the doors and were only angry that they were kept outside. They pounded on the doors to the rhythm of their repetitive chant: “Free, free Palestine.”

“In no way was this an attack on the Jewish people, on Judaism, on Jewish students or faculty members,” Magloire-Wilson said in an interview. The protesters, she said, consider themselves defenders of the Palestinian people.

But inside the library, the view was different. The students were visibly concerned by the knocking on the doors. That's when the six-second video was recorded.

Several pro-Palestinian protesters and at least one Jewish student said in interviews that they believed the doors were closed. But the school later said security footage showed they were not.

After two minutes, protesters moved to a glass wall on the side of the library. Only then, they said, did they realize that some of the Jewish counterprotesters were inside. For about seven minutes, they held signs, banged cardboard tubes and chanted slogans, the school said.

Two of the students inside the library sat at a table inches from the glass, as a video shows. “Hey, let's take a picture,” another student can be heard saying.

There is nervous laughter and also concern.

“This is not peaceful,” says a young woman. One asks if the police were there.

After the protesters left, the library doors remained closed for 20 minutes, not to protect anyone, the school said, but to minimize disruption to people studying and working there. The police were there the entire time and said there was no reason to intervene. “At no point did they shout that they wanted to kill people,” Carlos Nieves, deputy commissioner of the Police Department, later said.

Within minutes, however, the campus dispute had taken on a life of its own, embroiling students in an intense national discussion over free speech and anti-Semitism on campus.

Jake Novak, a pro-Israel media personality with thousands of followers, posted the video that would go viral on social platform X.

“BREAKING: My sources tell me that several @cooperunion Jewish students are currently locked in the school library while a pro-Hamas demonstration outside the Cooper Union building learned that Jews were afraid and sitting in the library, then brought the protest inside and they are barricading. all exits,” she wrote, once the event was over.

He tagged the mainstream media to get their attention.

Each post seemed to add more false details: that the Jewish students had escaped through a secret tunnel, for example, or had hidden in an attic.

Magloire-Wilson published his photo and name in a social media post that accused him of “orchestrating the mob attack” on Jewish students. His social media accounts were soon filled with racist insults and threats. Someone sent him a photo of a rope. He said that he was afraid that someone would hurt him and that he was worried about his future.

“The unfortunate thing about this is that it's happening on such a large scale, this system of doxing and forcing young students and people into this horrible position,” he said.

The day after the protest, supporters of the Jewish students held a press conference calling for Ms. Sparks' resignation.

The student who recorded the six-second video, Taylor Roslyn Lent, was interviewed on Fox News. She said that, while she did not usually feel threatened by pro-Palestinian protests, she had felt threatened “when my fellow students chanted slogans at me calling for the murder of Jews.”

(During the protest in front of the school, students chanted several slogans, including the controversial phrase: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” but they denied that they were calling for violence.)

Ziporah Reich, litigation director for the Lawfare Project, a pro bono legal organization, denied requests for interviews with Ms. Lent and the other Jewish students she represented in possible civil litigation against the school. She said her clients were the clear victims and questioned the details provided by the school and police.

Amy Binder, a Johns Hopkins sociologist who researches student activism, said student disputes had become fodder for a growing number of organizations, most of them right-wing, that denounce unsupportive political behavior on campuses.

“It's incredibly divisive,” he said.

At Cooper Union, the episode has further eroded trust among students on campus. A spokeswoman, Kim Newman, said an internal review of the events was underway. “Discrimination, harassment or intimidation of any kind is not tolerated here,” she said.

Ed Shanahan contributed reports.

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