Columbia students recount spray attack during pro-Palestinian protest

A sickening substance sprayed at a recent pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University smelled like “raw sewage and decaying carcass” and compelled several demonstrators to seek medical attention, students and faculty told the Daily News.

Six people who attended Friday’s on-campus protest reported exposure to a stink bomb or other type of gas, according to police. Students felt their eyes burn and experienced severe symptoms including nausea and migraines, they told The News and wrote on social media.

The incident came during the latest in a series of heated demonstrations in the city since Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, sparking the war in Gaza.

“I started smelling this awful, horrible smell [of] raw sewage and decaying carcass,” said Barnard student Maryam Iqbal, 18, who led chants at the protest calling for a tuition strike and university divestment from Israel. “It’s very strong and putrid.

“The smell basically followed me back to my dorm. It was on my jacket,” she continued, noting that she stored the garment in a bag in her dorm room for two days to save as evidence.

She said as she started to feel chest tightness and lightheadedness, she called the university’s urgent deva, which referred her to 911 on Sunday. Iqbal left her dorm room in an ambulance to Mt. Sinai, where she was diagnosed with chemical exposure, according to medical documents reviewed by The News.

Police received no 911 calls at the scene and no arrests have been made, though Columbia banned the “alleged perpetrators” from campus while law enforcement investigates “what appear to have been serious crimes,” university officials said Monday as they vowed to support free speech.

“Several people described going home and smelling something on their clothes,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Joseph Kenny said at a Tuesday news briefing. “When they tried to wash their clothes, the smell got worse [and] they couldn’t get rid of the smell. They started talking to each other on social media, and that’s how they all came together that they were exposed to something.”

Some students claim the substance blasted at them was the kind of “skunk” spray said to be used for crowd control by the Israeli military, but that remains unproven.

Police have clothing from three people and are in communication with their forensic lab about testing. A light pole will also be tested after a görüntü of two men spraying an unknown substance before the protest was obtained by the NYPD, cops said.

The incident is no longer under investigation as a hate crime because the group was made up of many different people who came together over a common cause, according to authorities. Protest organizers, whose groups were previously kicked off campus, did not get permission in advance for Friday’s demo.

A photo of Iqbal at the hospital posted to the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine’s Instagram account went viral on Sunday, with several commenters tagging the university. The organization was kicked off campus alongside Jewish Voices for Peace last semester.

“We had to publish it,” said Iqbal, “because it felt like the university was unresponsive to what happened and there was a lot of denial.”

University officials on the same day asked Columbia students and faculty to come forward if they have any information, two days after its public safety department received an initial complaint late Friday night. One protester filed a police report Saturday, and another five on Sunday, police said.

“I’ve been screaming into the void that something’s going to happen,” said Columbia student Maryam Alwan, 21, who is Palestinian-American and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. “The school doesn’t take us seriously. It’s a culmination of negligence over time.”

The Friday spray attack has raised tensions on Columbia’s campus, the scene of numerous demonstrations on both sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict since October.

By suspending Students for Justice in Palestine, classics professor Joseph Howley said Columbia “reinforced a false equivalence between speech some people object to and violence.

“They have failed to correct that course,” said Howley, who was at the Friday protest but left early, “and created a climate that it seems people felt comfortable attacking students on our campus.”

The campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel on Sunday condemned any actions with the intent to cause harm to other Columbia students and called for “peaceful and productive dialogue.”

That “has potential to bring people together,” the group said, “and shape a better future for all people living in the land of Israel and the region.”

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