A retired teacher saw inspiration in Columbia's protests. Eric Adams called her an outside agitator

Before and after police officers arrested more than 100 people at Columbia University who were protesting the war in Gaza, New York Mayor Eric Adams blamed “outside agitators” for leading the demonstrations

Jake Offenhartz
Wednesday 01 May 2024 23:40 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Before police officers poured into Columbia University on Tuesday night, arresting more than 100 people as they cleared an occupied school building and tent encampment, New York City Mayor Eric Adams received a piece of intelligence he said shifted his thinking about the campus demonstrations over the war in Gaza.

“Outside agitators” working to “radicalize our children" were leading students into more extreme tactics, the mayor claimed. And one of them, Adams said repeatedly in media appearances Wednesday morning, was a woman whose husband was “convicted for terrorism.”

But the woman referenced by the mayor wasn't on Columbia's campus this week, isn't among the protesters who were arrested and has not been accused of any crime.

Nahla Al-Arian, 63, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Adams had misstated both her role in the protests and the facts about her husband, Sami Al-Arian, a former computer engineering professor and prominent Palestinian activist.

He was arrested in 2003 on charges of supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in the 1980s and 1990s, but a jury declined to convict him of any charges. The complicated case remained in legal limbo for years, even after he took a plea deal on a lesser charge that his family said he accepted to get out of jail and end their suffering. He was deported to Turkey in 2015, ending a case seen by some as an example of excessive government overreach.

A retired elementary school teacher, Nahla Al-Arian said she did go to Columbia — but not to teach anyone about civil disobedience.

“The whole thing is a distraction because they are very scared that the young Americans are aware for the first time of what’s going on in Palestine,” Nahla Al-Arian said. “They are the ones who influenced me. They are the ones who gave me hope that at last the Palestinian people can get some justice.”

She said she has lost dozens of relatives to Israeli airstrikes in recent months and wanted to see the encampment up close, so she stopped by briefly on April 25 while visiting New York City on an unrelated trip with her two daughters. She said she sat briefly on the lawn but did not speak directly with any protesters, whom she described as “busy and beautiful.”

“I sat and I felt happy to see those students fighting for justice for the oppressed people in Palestine,” she recalled. “Then I was tired, so I left.”

It was a photo of her kneeling alone beside a tent, taken by her daughter and shared on X by her husband, that quickly stoked allegations of a terrorism link to the protest.

The claim was parroted by right-wing social media accounts, including Libs of TikTok. One post that racked up over 1 million views on X erroneously said the woman might have been among protesters as police entered the campus. The post cited City Hall sources and has since been deleted. But the claim spread widely, fueling a narrative — vehemently disputed by student organizers — that Columbia’s pro-Palestinian movement has been co-opted by external forces.

In an appearance Wednesday on “CBS Mornings," Adams, a Democrat, said that the NYPD's intelligence division had identified people among the protesters “who were professionals, well-trained. One of them was married to someone that was arrested for terrorism.” Pressed for details, he declined to name the woman, but suggested reporters could figure it out by looking at social media.

Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe," Adams also said his suspicions about external influences on the students had been confirmed after police identified a woman in the protest “organization” whose “husband was arrested for and convicted for terrorism on a federal level.” At a news conference later in the day, Adams suggested that Columbia students had been taught by outsiders how to barricade themselves to repel police attempts to remove them, saying, “These are all skills that are taught and learned.”

Police declined to provide details about what groups may have been involved or to say how many of the 109 people arrested at Columbia Tuesday night were not connected to the university. Even before the students entered Hamilton Hall, police officials previously claimed, without providing evidence, that an outside group was helping to fund and organize the encampment.

Law enforcement officials have long sought to discredit protests by invoking the specter of “outside agitators," dating back to the Civil Rights movement. Police officials in New York made similar claims during the demonstrations that erupted across the city after the death of George Floyd in 2020, at times labeling peaceful marches led by neighborhood activists as the work of violent outside extremists.

Students at Columbia have been open about the fact that they count outside community members among their movement. But organizers maintain their actions have been led by students, some of whom said they had closely studied tactics used by those who took over several university buildings in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War and racism.

In a statement, the group behind the encampment, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, defended its right “to include people from outside the Ivy League or the ivory tower in this global movement.”

“‘Outside agitator’ is a far right smear used to discredit coalition building and anti racism,” the statement continued.

Laila Al-Arian, a journalist who joined her mother at the encampment on April 25, said the mayor’s comments dredged up painful memories of her father’s years-long legal battle, which included lengthy time spent in solitary confinement. Adams, she said, "was appealing to people's most base racist instincts" to treat Muslims as dangerous outsiders.

“My mother wanted to see this beautiful act of solidarity up close,” she added. “For people to use my father to smear these students, who may not have even been alive when all of this was happening, is shameful in so many ways.”

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