September 25, 2007

Hundreds Demonstrate Against Iranian Government Policies

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NEW YORK — Columbia University Department of Public Safety, New York City police officers and other Columbia officials barred many protesters and other curious parties from entering Columbia’s campus yesterday. Many of these voices who were not able to come through the gates to hear or protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech, however, were echoed by those inside, as hundreds of Columbia students protested on Low Plaza in front of the library. Unlike many of the protests on Cornell’s own Ho Plaza, this demonstration included speakers with many different agendas.
Some protested the universty bringing Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while others spoke about the importance of free speech.
“I’m ashamed to be associated with the university today,” said Eitan Bendavid, a recent Columbia graduate. “If Hitler were around today, [Columbia President Lee] Bollinger would invite Hitler to speak at Columbia.
“[Ahmadinejad] will be forced to contend with the level of confrontation he doesn’t face in his country … what better use for our university,” a member of the Columbia Democrats told the crowd.
A number of students around campus, including junior Jon Berliner, were wearing shirts quoting Edmund Burke at the rally: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
“The reason we have to have a coalition like this is because people are just so frustrated about bringing this potentially divisive speaker to campus,” said Berliner, who was attending the rally. “And it’s very important that everyone hears their views, because if this was Iran you know what would happen. Not only would you not be able to express your views, but if you did, you’d be thrown in jail.”
Many demonstrators expressed anger over the treatment of women, gay and lesbian people and religious minorities in Iran. Other protesters spoke out aginst Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, as well as statements he has made arguing for the destruction of Israel.
Flyers and speakers also promoted the importance of keeping preventing the U.S. from going to war with Iran. A representative of the Columbia Coalition Against the War told the crowd that they were against war with Iran but hoped protests against Ahmadinejad would not promote a lead to war.
As more students approached the demonstration – and tried to make their way to classes – they were greeted by hundreds of flyers, manying arguing the same points as the protesters.
Columbia/Barnard Hillel sponsored many of the flyers, including several reading a quote attributed to Ahmadinejad: “Anyone who recognizes Israel will burn in the fury of the Islamic Nation.”
Not all Columbia students were caught up in the protests, however.
“I’m kind of surprised that they’re making such a big deal of it,” said Columbia sophomore Sarah Kramer, who was on her way to class when she walked by the protest. “No one’s forcing us to agree with what Ahmadinejad is saying, so I don’t really see a problem with him coming. He was invited, I believe, to challenge his view and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Columbia’s Vice President for Student Services Rosemary Keane told The Columbia Spectator, the student-run independent newspaper, that between 2,000 and 3,000 people were on campus for the simulcast and protest. An additional 500 to 600 protesters stayed outside the gates to campus.
Some waved Iranian flags, while others touted Israeli and American flags. One replica of the Iranian flag was taped to the ground, bearing the words “no war on Iran.”
Before the speeches were planned to begin, the protesters and those crowded around began to disparate. Some went to the event itself while others – and thousands more students and faculty – moved to South Fields, where Ahmadinejad, Bollinger and Prof. John Coatsworth, acting dean of the School for International and Political Affairs, had their presentation simulcast. Many people were able to sit on the field in front of a large screen, while others stood behind or nearby, watching and listening.
A few protesters continued to hold signs near the screen, so that those watching were reminded of their messages: Racist homophobic misogynist get off my campus; Ahmadinejad: Stop persecuting women and gays; Ahmadinejad=Bad. Bush=Worse. No war on Iran.
Ahmadinejad’s speech served as a source of contention for many away from Columbia’s campus as well. Two members of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver (D-63rd District) and Dov Hikind (D-48th District), told The New York Sun that Columbia should be penalized for bringing Ahmadinejad.
“Bollinger made a big mistake, and there should be consequences for him for making that decision,” Silver said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) disagreed with these politicians.
“The message that we’re sending when we criticize Columbia is that we don’t believe in our own values,” Bloomberg told The Associated Press. “I can’t stand by [Ahmadinejad], but to … [say] we don’t even have the freedoms that we preach is just not very smart.”
In Washington, Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) both showed displeasure with Columbia’s decision.
“There is a world of difference between not preventing Ahmadinejad from speaking and handing a megalomaniac a megaphone and a stage to use it,” McConnell told The Associated Press.