Winners and Losers of the Columbia Protests? History Will Tell.

Fifty-six years to the day that police in riot gear first swept through the campus of Columbia University to clear buildings that had been taken over by protesters, hundreds of officers stormed into Hamilton Hall and put an end to the occupation over the war in Gaza. Of the 109 people arrested this time, most were students; though Mayor Eric Adams claimed others were “outside agitators” who he believed were dangerously “radicalizing our children,” a characterization that fell awkwardly between forgiveness and condescension.

Protest in the name of the marginalized tends to land on the right side of history, no matter how misunderstood the particular cause or grievance might be in the present. A Gallup poll conducted in 1963, for example, found that 60 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view of the March on Washington, assuming it would lead to violence and achieve nothing. Two years later, a plurality of Americans held the view that so-called outside agitators — in this instance, Communists — were behind the civil rights movement.

Yet even with this kind of hindsight and understanding, it is natural to want to create a scorecard amid the smoke and fire of the moment. If we think of attention as a prevailing measure of success, then the Columbia protests, inspiring so many others and consuming global headlines, have been triumphant. Still, at the same time, the protesters have seen their demands go unmet — Columbia is not divesting from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation — the campus has been closed off to most people, classes and final exams switched to remote and students have been threatened with expulsion. Beyond that, anyone who chooses to remain in Morningside Heights for the next few weeks will not be rid of the police, because university administrators, who oversee a $14 billion endowment, have asked the Police Department to stay on campus through mid-May, at taxpayers’ expense.

There is a point in any movement in which publicity can begin to obscure purpose. “I see very little talk this week about what is happening to Palestinians in Gaza,” Peter Staley, the celebrated AIDS activist, told me. He recalled a major ACT UP demonstration in December 1989 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that is still debated among participants. The idea was to disrupt a Mass offered by Cardinal John O’Connor to condemn the church’s stance on condoms. Hundreds of protesters invaded the church. In what became one of the most widely criticized gestures, angering leaders across the political continuum, someone went up to receive communion, crumbled the eucharist and told the cardinal that “opposing safe sex is murder.” Mr. Staley has long since considered the extremism of the whole affair a mistake.

“The tactics start to become the story and crowd out the issue, and then the movement has to look at what it is doing and not get its back up,” he said. “As soon as I saw a student hammering through glass panes at Hamilton Hall leading the news, I knew the game was up.”

Taken in the aggregate, the campus protests across the country suggest certain institutional failings, long in the making — the trouble colleges and universities have had both modeling and inculcating values that are meant to be fundamental to the mission. If a primary purpose of the elite undergraduate experience is to gain the ability to brilliantly persuade, to develop strong, complex arguments built on evidence and rigorous inquiry, then the protests provide another vantage on the way the project of higher education has come up short. The demands of the protesters can seem vague, the broader implications of divestment not especially thought through, ideas about the future of Israel unclear.

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