Column: A Catch-22 That Protects Anti-Israel Offenders at Columbia
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Column: A Catch-22 That Protects Anti-Israel Offenders at Columbia

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania – If 30 anti-Israel protesters at Columbia University are brash enough to seize Hamilton Hall this fall, they can tell the judge that they have no criminal history.

The very same message was delivered to Judge Kevin McGrath in Manhattan Criminal Court last Thursday, June 20, before he dismissed trespassing charges against the worst enemies of the Palestinian people when they occupied Hamilton Hall in late April. Those arrested claim they are advocating for Palestinians, but they are dampening sympathy because their conduct during the last nine months has exposed their slimy and often illegal tactics.

“No police officers were injured. It would therefore be extremely difficult for (prosecutors) to prove any charge other than trespass at trial,” explained Assistant District Attorney Stephen Millan.

Their lack of a criminal record also factored into the District Attorney office’s decision to seek dismissal of the charges, according to The New York Daily News. Plus, the 30 alleged criminals – er, these former alleged criminals – facilitated other offenses by their illegal presence, even if they did not damage property or injure anyone themselves.

So if they again seize and occupy another building and are suspected of causing mayhem, they can fall back on their innocent and wholesome pasts. If the judge exonerates them on that basis, they can merely employ that defense to avoid punishment for future crimes.

“This is turnstile justice,” said Michael Nussbaum, a 25-year member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “This is a green light for chaos, a green light for destroying property.”

“Terrible result,” posted conservative academic Steven McGuire, also a supporter of Donald Trump, Newsweek reports. He argues that “the student intifada” is “full of radical revolutionaries who want to destroy Israel.”

With the exception of McGuire, a rogue’s gallery of Trump backers posted the usual psychotic messages blaming President Biden for the campus chaos as well as everything else wrong with the world.

Deterrence is critical to end criminal conduct of advocates for the Palestinians. If they commit a crime and are not held accountable, as is the case here, they might continue to break the law because they expect to get away with it. They have been behaving badly for years at colleges, near Jewish facilities and elsewhere, if not as extensive since the Oct. 7 Hamas raid that took 1,200 lives in southern Israel. They have rarely been taken to court by law enforcement and have persisted with criminal conduct.

Their campaign has even accelerated in the past week. On Sunday, advocates for both Israel and the Palestinians clashed in a violent confrontation outside an Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles. I stayed in a hotel in that neighborhood several years ago. Fifty synagogues in Florida were reported to receive threatening messages in recent days.

So it is puzzling why the D.A.’s office is conducting this collection of cases the way it has. Prime suspect: District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg Jr. specifically and the Democratic Party leadership in general. Democrats are pressured by progressives who threaten to effectively sit out the Nov. 5 presidential election because they accuse Biden of supporting Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

Dropping relatively minor charges cannot hurt in persuading protesters to vote for Biden, and it could help Bragg prepare for future campaigns such as the Senate or governor. Bragg made history on May 30 when his prosecution of  Trump in a hush-payment case resulted in the former president’s conviction. However, taking a hardline stance against the former defendants could alienate him from progressive voters.

Conversely, Trump supporters have posted messages accusing Bragg of weaponizing the courts against Republicans while excusing Democrats. It’s a stretch to say it looks that way. Trump is lucky he has yet to be convicted or even indicted for far more serious crimes. Yet, these anti-Israel protests are just as real and must be taken more seriously by law enforcement.

Millan contended that the D.A.’s office had too much difficulty investigating offenses more significant than trespassing at Hamilton Hall.

However, prosecution for trespassing sounds like a slam-dunk. It is not as sexy as physical assault or vandalism, but trespassing is a crime. Make any argument you want, but a criminal record would likely deter most of them from doing anything like it again. Of course, without a criminal record, they might try to use that to avoid a criminal record if their protesting goes too far when college campuses reopen full time this fall.

The dismissals came against the backdrop of the Hamilton Hall occupation in which police arrested 46 demonstrators who had barricaded themselves inside Hamilton and cleared a weeks-old tent encampment on a nearby Columbia lawn on April 30, the Reuters news agency reports. All 46 were initially charged with trespass in the third degree, a misdemeanor.

Millan told the court that his office would not prosecute 30 defendants who were Columbia students and two employees at the time of the arrest. Charges against another student was dismissed earlier in June.

The assistant district attorney said demonstrators wore masks and covered surveillance cameras, and there was not sufficient evidence to show that any individual damaged property or harmed anyone.

This is a Catch-22 to top all Catch 22’s. Crimes more serious than trespassing were committed, and these occupiers – who accuse Israel of an illegal occupation – made it impossible for the D.A.’s office to investigate.

However, prosecutors will continue with trespass charges against 13 others. Two were also students and most of the others are alumni.

Already Bragg’s office proposed the possibility of letting the other 13 off the hook via a clause in state law letting the case be dropped and sealed in six months, if they are not arrested for another offense in the meantime, according to Reuters. Quite a generous offer that was accepted by a 14th demonstrator earlier this month. That person showed that he or she has some brains.

The luckless 13’s lawyers seek to have their cases dismissed. Maybe their clients want the freedom to break the law again within the next six months.

Columbia may well deter further chaos through disciplinary action or threats of harsh discipline, but what if they do not? Police may believe that prosecution is not necessary to deter future offenses, but they do not control the powers held by local universities. Columbia can renege on its promise to enforce discipline, and those students and employees will feel free to repeat their offenses.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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One comment

  1. This article does not mention that the protesters can be arrested for aiding an FTO

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