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‘Are You Being Paid to Protest’? At Columbia, Students Refused to Answer My Questions

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by Jose Campos

“Are you being paid to attend this protest?”

That’s all it took for the woman to start screaming at me. I asked the question, and she exploded in rage. Then her friends joined in, shredding their vocal cords while venting their fury.

I normally write about the Spanish speaking world for Soldier of Fortune. But I was in New York visiting friends, and wanted to see what was going on with the campus protests. I called my publisher, Susan Katz Keating.

“Hey, can I cover Columbia?”

READ MORE from Jose Campos: The ‘Shining Path’ Guerrilla Group Emerges Again in Peru

The first thing she said was, “Where is your protective gear?” She will probably cut this from my story, but she can be a total pain about personal safety [Note: No, I did not cut this from your story, and I will continue to be a pain on the safety issue ~SKK].

As it happened, I had the gear in my car, so she gave me the go-ahead.

The scene at Columbia University (Claire Schnatterbeck/VOA)

Columbia has been the scene of protests in the aftermath of Oct. 7, when Hamas brutally attacked Israelis in their homes. The terrorists killed innocent people, raped helpless targets, and took hostages. I am not aware of any protests where the Columbia students spoke out against the Oct. 7 attack. Instead, they condemn Israel for defending itself and for striking back against the terror network.

A group of students, calling themselves Columbia University Apartheid Divest, erected dozens of tents in the early morning hours last Thursday on the lawn at the center of campus. They declared the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

The New York Police Department Strategic Response Group arrived later that day, and removed some of the protesters from campus. Police charged 108 students with trespassing, and two were also charged with obstruction of governmental administration, according to police Captain Jaclyn Keane.

The protests intensified.

Outside the gates of Columbia, students chanted:

Ya Hamas, we love you

We support your rockets too

Unbalanced and Weird

The whole thing was so weird, so unbalanced and vicious, it didn’t seem normal; it didn’t seem like a natural outgrowth of honest dissent. Everything seemed planned and staged, like an open-air performance. People wore costumes. They recited lines. They had choruses. Even their tent city was like a stage set. The tents are identical to one another, and obviously came from the same supplier.

The whole thing seemed very discordant; as in, why now? In years gone by, the situation in Israel / Gaza has not been high on the radar at U.S. college campuses. Students have been far more interested in things that could apply to their own lives, such as, the abortion debate. Why are they so suddenly interested in the Palestinian cause? 

Someone sent me a tip that the protests were using paid participants. This apparently is a thing. There is a company on the web that says it provides crowds or protesters for events and PR stunts.

I called Susan. She said it could be a spoof, but she would look into it on her end.

[Note: I reached out to one company that advertises these services. So far, I have not received a response ~SKK].

Susan and I agreed that even if the website is a spoof, it is reasonable to ask whether the protesters are being paid.

Video screenshot. At Columbia University.

A Question of Motive

I turned to the nearest agitator. 

“Are you being paid to attend this protest?”

She immediately began screaming at me.

“Why are you here? Why do you support Hamas? Did someone pay you?” I asked.

Her tone grew angrier. Her friends joined in.

I called Susan. I wanted her to hear the shrieking. Some of it was from the small group near me, and some came from the crowd at large. These people definitely like to yell.

My personal screamers closed in. Their tone got uglier. They accused me of being Jewish – as if that were a crime. One of them was carrying a tree branch.

I spoke into the phone: “They have a tree branch.”

A few crowd-clumps away, a lawn chair took flight. I couldn’t tell where it landed. I told Susan: “Someone threw a chair.” An identical chair soon followed. “There goes another one.”

Susan said some stuff I couldn’t decipher. Then she started yelling at me.

“I can’t hear you,” I said. “It’s too noisy.”

Then I get this:

GET OUT! GET OUT NOW!

Okay boss. Got it.

I backstepped slowly away. They followed. I got a heavy “rabid animal” vibe. I thought of dropping to the ground and baring my throat, as a sarcastic counter-protest, but I figured they wouldn’t appreciate the joke. I kept walking. My haters followed me a little ways. Then they seemed to lose interest.

Unanswered Questions

We still don’t know who is behind the mass fury. Who is organizing and strategizing? All we know is, this is a highly focused series of events that uses outrage and anger as a way to intimidate people, especially Jews.

Earlier in the day, Business School assistant professor Shai Davidai was denied entry to the university for an attempted pro-Israel counter-protest on the occupied lawn.

Columbia COO Cass Halloway and other officials appeared at the gate where Davidai was trying to get inside.

“I am a professor here; I have every right to be everywhere on campus,” Davidai said. “You cannot let people who support Hamas on campus, and me, a professor, not on campus. Let me in now.”

Jewish students at Columbia told me the protests make them feel physically threatened. They feel unsafe.

I can see why.

And those protesters never did answer my questions.

Jose Campos covers the Spanish speaking world for Soldier of Fortune.

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