Columbia University’s Two-Tiered Punishments

After over five months of disciplinary proceedings, we Columbia University students, who in October protested a speech by then Minutemen Project leader Jim Gilchrist, have been advised that Columbia University has issued discipline against us. These arbitrary and ridiculous punishments are the culmination of an arbitrary and ridiculous process, in which students were denied due process, presentation of any evidence or witnesses to substantiate specific charges, any legal representation, or any explanation of the basis for the disciplinary findings. Most atrocious is the fact that of the seven students, the three Latino students received the harshest punishments. In contrast, the non-Latino student protesters who were punished received “disciplinary warnings,” the lightest punishment available.

The administration did not give a reason for the different punishments. We received “censures,” which was the maximum penalty given the “simple” charges-as opposed to “serious” charges- against us. The censure means that any subsequent disciplinary infraction, regardless of the severity, will automatically result in our suspension.

The impropriety and racism undergirding Columbia’s discipline is particularly laid bare in the case of Martin Lopez. Lopez was one of the three students who received a censure. Video coverage provided by Univision shows that Lopez, a sophomore and the son of immigrant parents, was kicked violently in the face by a Minutemen supporter while on the floor of the auditorium. He never set one foot on stage.

By bowing to right-wing pressure, Columbia University brought shame to itself. But their politically motivated and ultimately racist punishments should not obscure an obvious truth: we won. We won on the night of October 4, when we stood up and confronted the leading border vigilante in the country. We won because we sent a signal to immigrants everywhere that we don’t have to accept violence and harassment as a legitimate part of the immigration debate.

The power of the immigrant rights movement and the student activism is directly reflected in the selected punishments. Censuring the Latino students is a racist decision. It is a carefully crafted punishment designed to put an end to the growing political activism of Latino students on Columbia’s campus, which affected the University itself and has spread to other campuses. It will be our intensifying activism that will prove how mistaken and short-sighted was this decision by the administration.

What the right-wing establishment, the corporate media, and the Columbia administration fear is our protest becoming a trend of revived student radicalism. Recently, we’ve seen Michigan State students confront arch-xenophobe Tom Tancredo, Santa Barbara students occupy a highway to protest the war, and dozens of high schools and campuses walk-out to protest the beginning of the war’s fifth year. Here at Columbia, the Latino students who took to the stage on October 4 formed a new organization, Lucha, which as its name implies, is dedicated to political struggle. As its first campaign, Lucha organized a bus to the anti-war March on the Pentagon, and working with the ANSWER Coalition, raised money to bring high school students and low-income people to the march. For weeks we gave speeches in subway cars, and made presentations in high school classrooms-on why we should stand up for immigrant rights, and against the war, and how these struggles are related. This is what they fear, the fighting spirit of groups like Lucha spreading across the country.

We condemn the administration for apologizing to an organization whose very presence represents terror and violence in immigrant communities. We condemn them for punishing students who stood up for those communities. We condemn them for arbitrarily imposing heavier sentences on the Latino students, and in particular Martin Lopez, who was standing on the auditorium floor when he was kicked in the face by an outside Minutemen thug.

This hypocrisy, and these attempts to stifle and silence our widening movement, have only strengthened our resolve. We are prouder than ever. We will fight this punishment, we will continue to struggle for immigrant rights, to denounce racist organizations like the Minutemen wherever they go, and defend our communities.

Karina García, Martín López, and Cosette Olivo are the three Columbia student protesters who have received censures from the university.