The Mayor Called Them Outside Agitators. Many of Them Beg to Differ.

One of the people arrested at Columbia University this week was a middle-aged saxophonist who headed up to the campus from his Hell’s Kitchen apartment after learning about the protests on social media.

Another was tending his sidewalk pepper patch a few blocks from the student demonstrations when he learned the police were moving in and, grabbing a metal dog bowl and a spoon to bang against it, rushed to the students’ aid.

A third had been active in other left-leaning protests across the city but also happened to work as a nanny nearby. She went to the university gates on Tuesday and linked arms with other protesters in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the advancing officers, she said.

After pro-Palestinian demonstrators occupied a building on Columbia’s campus this week, demanding that the university end all financial ties with Israel, the New York Police Department moved in and arrested more than 100 people there. Mayor Eric Adams and other city leaders have accused so-called outside agitators — professional organizers with no ties to the university — of hijacking a peaceful student protest and spurring its participants to adopt ever more aggressive tactics.

“Professional, external actors are involved in these protests,” said Edward A. Caban, the New York City Police Commissioner. “They are not affiliated with either the institutions or campuses in question, and they are working to escalate the situation.”

A New York Times review of police records and interviews with dozens of people involved in the protest at Columbia found that a small handful of the nearly three dozen arrestees who lacked ties to the university had also participated in other protests around the country. One man who was taken into custody inside Hamilton Hall, the occupied campus building, had been charged with rioting and wearing a disguise to evade the police during a demonstration in California nearly a decade earlier.

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