CUNY City College President Laments Not Breaking Up Pro-Palestinian Encampment Sooner

In a series of town hall meetings last week, Vincent Boudreau defended his decision to call in the NYPD and blamed outsiders for escalating the situation on campus ahead of that crackdown. This story first appeared in THE CITY on May 13th was reported in collaboration with student journalists from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY.

| 13 May 2024 | 04:50

In a series of town hall meetings with students, faculty and staff last week, City College President Vincent Boudreau attempted to quell anger and frustration about his decision to deploy the NYPD to break up a pro-Palestinian encampment on April 30, after campus police proved “inadequate” in his telling.

The encampment began on April 25, with CUNY students, faculty and alumni camping out and calling for the public university system to divest from Israel amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

Boudreau, a political scientist specializing in the politics of social movements, was arrested at least five times while pushing for the university to divest from South Africa as a grad student at Cornell University in the 1980’s. He was one of hundreds of students there arrested over the course of several months in demonstrations that included sit-ins and the erection of a “shanty town” where students camped out for 65 days.

But last week he told faculty members Tuesday that he stood by the move to clear the encampment, adding that he wished he’d done so sooner. The remarks were made at a previously unreported online town hall meeting with faculty that was viewed by THE CITY. Boudreau spoke to students at a similar online town hall Wednesday afternoon, which was also observed by THE CITY.

“Allowing the site to harden. That’s my one regret,” he said. “If what you’re implying is that we have to allow demonstrators free run of the campus...I reject that.”

Boudreau laid out a detailed timeline of the incidents that led him to determine the protests had spiraled out of control, while conceding that CUNY’s Public Safety team had been ill-equipped to handle student demonstrations.

“We don’t have a public safety team that’s trained in crowd control. That’s on us,” Boudreau said.

CUNY has since approved another $4 million to hire 100 additional private officers at City College, with 30 of them already there to patrol the usually open Harlem campus, he said. The emergency procurement to handle “campus unrest” through the end of the semester at a weekly cost of $600,000 a week, follows mid-year layoffs and expected funding cuts of more than $100 million by the end of the year.

Tensions with CUNY public safety officers erupted on the first day of demonstrations, when an officer shoved a demonstrator, leading to a tense standoff that ended when the university’s police were pushed out of the encampment in a central plaza.

“This was a moment when we realized how volatile the protest was potentially and how inadequate our public safety team was,” Boudreau said.

After that incident, Boudreau pulled CUNY public safety team back from the encampment for several days, he said, despite what he described as repeated safety concerns administrators raised, like what he said was a “military grade” flare that set fire to the roof of a campus building, causing $250,000 in damage on the evening of Sunday, April 28.

Tensions with public safety officers boiled over again two days later when a splinter group of demonstrators managed to get into a campus administration building and briefly barricade themselves inside. “The brief occupation resulted in damage to furniture, computers and a xerox machine in the financial aid office,” Boudreau said.

Outside, public safety officers unleashed a cloud of pepper spray on demonstrators at close range that overwhelmed at least one journalist and possibly some of the officers using it, the CUNY Journalism Graduate School’s NYCity News Service reported, as two officers were treated at a hospital for “pepper spray related trauma.” Bourdeau didn’t mention that campus police used pepper spray on demonstrators in either town hall meeting with staff or students, though he did say public safety officers had been maced.

Get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to your inbox each morning. Cancel anytime.

Noah Gardy, a CUNY spokesperson, declined to clarify if officers pepper sprayed themselves or if there was some other source of pepper spray that afternoon, but said that officers undergo “extensive training.”

“We are grateful to CUNY Public Safety Officers for continuing to support and protect our campus communities,” he said.

Gregory Floyd, the President of Teamsters Local 237, the union that represents CUNY public safety officers, said the college hasn’t had enough peace officers for years, as he blamed Boudreau for not calling in the NYPD sooner.

“CCNY Peace Officers have suffered numerous physical and verbal attacks, including being maced,” he said. The union deferred to the university regarding the question of whether public safety officers pepper sprayed themselves.

“It is paramount that in emergencies of this magnitude, that there is coordination between the NYPD and campus Peace Officers — which the President failed to recognize and allow.”

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office has blamed CUNY Public Safety for some of the people arrested at City College being detailed for longer than the 24-hours allowed for under the city’s rules, saying they had failed to hand over arrest paperwork in a timely manner. A CUNY spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment about that.

At a separate town hall meeting for students that Boudreau held on Wednesday afternoon, and which was also viewed by THE CITY, some participants expressed concerns about the increased patrols.

Boudreau said they would be phased out after the end of the semester during the student town hall Wednesday in response to a student’s concerns.

Over this week’s series of town halls, Boudreau repeatedly asserted that non-CUNY protesters had been responsible for the escalations he said compelled him to bring in the NYPD. He also noted a petition signed by some City College students saying they didn’t feel safe coming to campus and showed a video of a Jewish student journalist having his yarmulke knocked off at the encampment.

Of nearly 200 people arrested inside an administrative building and on the adjoining public streets, 54 were CUNY faculty or staff members and 34 were students within the CUNY system, with just eight directly affiliated with City College, according to Boudreau. Those figures don’t appear to include CUNY alumni, who were also involved in the demonstration.

Of those 33 arrests of people inside a campus building that was briefly occupied by the group, about half of them were affiliated with a CUNY school either as a faculty or staff member, Boudreau said.

“I raised that, not because I want to say, you know, there was a vast conspiracy out there that came in and infiltrated and so these are external agitators. That’s not what I’m saying,” he said, at the student town hall Wednesday afternoon. “What I’m saying is that as a community we have navigated this really difficult time in a way that gave opportunities for people to protest,” he said.

“It wasn’t primarily a student demonstration,” he told faculty the day earlier.

Boudreau asserted that the character of the encampment changed at night, from teach-ins, communal meals and a cappella singing to a darker and more ominous scene, citing the flares demonstrators lit on consecutive nights.

“I don’t believe that the activities, especially at night, were driven by City College,” he said. “I refuse to believe that after potentially setting one of our buildings on fire that the response the very next night would be to double down on the placement of flares inside the encampment.”

Professors during Tuesday’s town hall pushed back during the town hall.

“I was present at the encampment during the day and at night. I frankly reject the characterization of the encampment as being as different or more violent at night as it was during the day,” one professor said.

Derek Ludovici, an adjunct international studies professor at CCNY who attended the town hall, noted that blaming outsiders, as Mayor Eric Adams and other top city officials have also been quick to do with limited evidence, is a tactic that’s been used for decades to delegitimize protest movements.

“This is New York City. There is a massive mobilization. Students are part of these various organizations, they are plugged in, and it’s a public school,” he said. “The community was there.”

Boudreau wrote a letter to students that afternoon, imploring them to dismantle the encampment before the start of class the next day.

“If the encampment is not voluntarily dismantled we will be forced to consider all legal, disciplinary and operational measures at our disposal,” the warning read, offering to allow demonstrators to reestablish the protest in a different location on campus.

Later that evening, a splinter group of demonstrators forced their way briefly into an administrative building, barricading themselves inside for around 15 minutes.

“The movement to occupy that building had nothing to do with an escalation in pressure on that encampment, nothing to do with it,” Bourdreau said.

“It was a move to escalation because Columbia University escalated,” he said, referring to the occupation of Hamilton Hall which had taken place the morning ahead of the police crackdown at both CUNY and Columbia campuses.

That night crowds of demonstrators arrived on public streets in support of the encampment on campus while members of the NYPD’s controversial Strategic Response Group were amassing areas inside and around the campus, blocking streets in the surrounding area beginning around 8 p.m.

Boudreau, says he didn’t formally ask the NYPD to move in and clear the encampment until just before midnight.

“With our public safety team, exhausted, outnumbered, doing the best they can to keep people out of our other buildings, truly worried about the potential for violence, at 11:45, I made the call for the NYPD to come in and assist in the operation,” he said.

At that point, hundreds of officers in riot gear were already at the campus gates, entering minutes later.

As with the NYPD’s crackdown at Columbia, reporters had limited access to campus when the NYPD cleared the encampment, though videos of physical arrests happening on the streets around campus quickly emerged online.

A statement from the CUNY GAZA Solidarity Encampment, composed of current students, faculty, and alumni, released a joint statement last week claiming that the NYPD broke a student’s ankle, broke two protesters teeth and injured many others. Boudreau said at his town hall meeting with students that he hadn’t been able to verify those accounts.

“From what we’ve seen these stories have not been substantiated. Not one student has come forward,” he said.

“You called the cops on them. The cops hurt them,” said Hunter College student government president Bashir Juwara, 24, who said he was in contact with one Hunter student who’d gotten a concussion when police arrested him.

Khizar Imran, 21, an electrical engineering student who serves as the vice president of finances for City College student government and who served as a liaison between administration and the demonstrators, said while the substance of Boudreau’s presentation was accurate, there were some conspicuous omissions in the president’s account.

“He didn’t say public safety pepper-sprayed their own students. He didn’t mention that,” he said. “I witnessed that.”

Imran said he’d been in close contact with Boudreau, who he said had struggled with the decision to involve police.

“If it was Queens College or Baruch College president, it would have been shut down first no questions asked,” he said. “But because of who he is, his history, he did not want the NYPD to be deployed.”

City College reopened on with most classes still taught online, marking an uneasy ending to a typically celebratory time of year.

“College is like a military ground right now. There’s so many fences, there’s like guards everywhere,” Imran said. “It’s still like a ghost town.”