Columbia and DA Bragg, please explain the decision to drop charges against rioters.

When Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg last week dropped charges against most of the protesters who seized Hamilton Hall at Columbia University on April 30, the announcement left New York’s Jewish community bewildered and angry.

The Columbia protests, rife with anti-Israel sentiments, exacerbated feelings of insecurity and vulnerability among Jewish students and faculty at Columbia and beyond, leaving deep scars.

Meanwhile, Bragg’s refusal — claiming a lack of evidence — to pursue criminal consequences for 31 of the 46 protesters charged with trespassing has broadly undermined trust in our legal institutions’ ability to protect and serve all communities fairly.

A rally outside of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg's office after he decided to drop charges against most of the protesters who seized Columbia University's Hamilton Hall.
A rally outside of Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s office on June 24, 2024 after he decided to drop charges against most of the protesters who seized Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall. Matthew McDermott

But several pressing questions for Columbia and Bragg remain.

First, where is the security footage?

In a world where surveillance cameras and smartphones are ubiquitous, it seems implausible that there was not ample video evidence to support charges against the trespassing protesters — after all, college campuses are typically outfitted with extensive security systems.

The fact that prosecutors cited “insufficient evidence” due to a lack of footage raises significant doubts about the handling of this case.

If there was footage, was it all reviewed by Bragg’s office? If not, why was such a crucial aspect of the investigation overlooked?

If Columbia chose not to provide footage to Bragg’s office, the private school may be attempting to sidestep further conflict with faculty and students angered by police involvement.

Meanwhile, Bragg’s statement that Columbia is pursuing disciplinary action contradicts the assertion that his office could not determine who was present in Hamilton Hall.

Second, did Bragg issue a subpoena?

If Columbia didn’t voluntarily provide security footage to investigators, Bragg should have taken the necessary legal steps to obtain it.

Subpoenaing the footage should be standard procedure in an investigation of this nature — so if that did not happen in this case, why not?

Thirdly, what about the masks?

Wearing masks while committing crimes is not merely suspicious; it’s illegal under New York state law.

Many protesters wore masks during the takeover of Hamilton Hall, but Bragg has not explained why his office neglected this potential charge.

Finally, Columbia called the police — so why stop now?

When the demonstrators stormed Hamilton Hall, Columbia President Minouche Shafik recognized that weeks of anti-Israel protests on campus had spiraled out of control and called in the NYPD to end the takeover.

It was the right decision then, so why does she not want to hold those arrested criminally accountable for the damage they caused?

Columbia is facing serious accusations, including a pending lawsuit, alleging it has failed to provide Jewish students with access to educational opportunities in an atmosphere free from discrimination.

The university has also demonstrated a willingness to unevenly apply its own standards of conduct in ways that have disadvantaged Jewish students.

Columbia has failed to protect Jewish students and faculty, and those who support them, from exposure to harmful language, including calls for genocide — inaction that flies in the face of the school’s leaders’ concerns about the effects of harmful speech on other minority communities.

It must take ownership of its abysmal record and ensure a fair and safe learning environment for all students, including Jews.

The implications of this case extend far beyond the confines of Hamilton Hall. They touch on broader issues of justice, community safety, and the equitable application of the law.

It is time for Bragg and Columbia to demonstrate a commitment to upholding justice and accountability for all, regardless of the political or societal pressures that may surround any given case.

When the last semester came to its merciful end, Shafik wrote to students, “It is going to take time to heal, but I know we can do that together.”

Given Columbia’s and Bragg’s clear refusal to seek justice in the riot’s aftermath, it is hard to see how that can happen.

Josh Kramer is director of the American Jewish Committee office in New York.

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