City College, Against Its Nature, Asks Police to End Campus Protest

It was after 10 p.m. on Tuesday, and the administration building of a college in Upper Manhattan had been ransacked. Protesters were wielding lit flares, the campus was descending into chaos, and the college’s security guards were outnumbered and exhausted.

The college president faced a momentous decision: Watch the chaos grow, or ask the New York Police Department to restore order?

And so Vincent Boudreau, president of the City College of New York, invited the police onto the campus.

While most of the attention this week has focused on protests at elite universities like Columbia and Brown, the events at City College were no less disruptive, and resulted in more arrests. But City College, “the Harvard of the proletariat,” has a unique place in New York, with a mandate to educate the poorest residents, and a long history of radical politics and protest. To many in the City College community, welcoming a police presence onto the Harlem campus was unthinkable.

“The unwritten rule was: Don’t call the police,” said Michele Wallace, who joined the college faculty as a professor of English in 1989 and is now an emeritus professor. She grew up in Harlem and, as a high school student in 1969, brought food to protesters at the campus. She described decades of work by administrators and faculty members to support a robust, sometimes radical student protest culture without engaging the police.

Mindful of the institution’s activist past, Mr. Boudreau said he had been reluctant to call in the police during the latest round of protests. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators had created an encampment in a quad on the college’s campus on April 18, one day after a similar encampment started at Columbia, about 10 blocks south. Until the alarming escalation on Tuesday night, he said, he had been determined not to interfere with what had been peaceful protest.

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