The 63-Year-Old Career Activist Among the Protesters at Columbia (2024)

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Videos show Lisa Fithian, whom the police called a “professional agitator,” working alongside protesters who stormed Hamilton Hall.

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Scenes From a Standoff Outside Hamilton Hall

Among the throng of Columbia University student protesters gathered outside Hamilton Hall on campus early Tuesday morning was a gray-haired woman in her 60s.

In a video captured by The New York Times, the protesters can be seen trying to push their way toward the building as the woman — decades older than the crowd — pleads with two young counterprotesters trying to block them from barricading the occupied building.

“This is ridiculous,” the woman says, as the men stand with their backs against the doors, apparently trying to keep protesters away from the building. “We’re trying to end a genocide in Gaza.”

The woman at the center of this encounter on the night protesters stormed and then occupied the building was Lisa Fithian, a longtime activist and trainer for left-wing protesters whom the Police Department would later publicly describe as a “confirmed professional agitator.”

Ms. Fithian, 63, was not at Columbia when the police arrived on Tuesday night and made dozens of arrests. She had returned to the home where she was staying in New York, she said in an interview Tuesday night.

As pro-Palestinian protests have spread to campuses across the country, the movement has been heralded by supporters as a student-driven campaign opposing the Israeli offensive in Gaza. But some law enforcement officials and university officials have suggested that the demonstrations have been taken over by people with no ties to the colleges where encampments have sprung up.

On Tuesday evening, as the police raided the Columbia encampment, Ms. Fithian found herself at the center of that dispute.

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By Leanne Abraham, Bora Erden and Lazaro Gamio

Ms. Fithian said videos and photos of her on campus were being misinterpreted by the police and “right-wing” critics.

“‘Oh, the terrorist, the professional agitator,’” Ms. Fithian said. “This has happened so many times in my life. They love to hate me.”

At a news conference on Tuesday before the arrests, Mayor Eric Adams said the pro-Palestinian demonstration at Columbia has been “co-opted by professional outside agitators” who have no affiliation with the institution.

“They are not here to promote peace or unity or allow a peaceful displaying of one’s voice,” Mr. Adams said. “They are here to create discord and divisiveness.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Nemat Shafik, the Columbia president, in a letter asking the Police Department to enter the campus and clear protesters from Hamilton Hall and the encampment occupied by demonstrators for about two weeks.

“We believe that while the group who broke into the building includes students, it is led by individuals who are not affiliated with the university,” Ms. Shafik wrote to the police on Tuesday. “The individuals who have occupied Hamilton Hall have vandalized university property and are trespassing.”

City and university officials have not said how many of the protesters arrested were not affiliated with the school.

Ms. Fithian disputed the idea that she was in any way organizing the protests.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s actually quite absurd. I know with these videos, it’s hard for some people to believe that. But it’s the truth.”

Ms. Fithian said she came to Columbia on Monday afternoon to conduct a training session with about 30 students activists focused on safety and the general logistics of a protest. She said she had been invited informally by someone — she said she did not catch their name — on Sunday during a visit to City College of New York. She said she was not paid.

Ms. Fithian has had a long public history of involvement with political protests.

She is the author of a 2019 book called “Shut it Down,” a guide to strategic civil disobedience and has worked as a political organizer for decades, supporting political demonstrations across the country, including Occupy Wall Street in 2011; the protests in Ferguson, Mo., that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by the local police in 2014; and the antiracism movement after the death of George Floyd in 2020.

She has also run workshops for other activists. Unions and activist groups have paid her $300 a day to run demonstrations and teach their members tactics for taking over the streets, according to a 2012 profile in Mother Jones magazine.

“The power we have is really in the streets,” she said at a virtual book event in 2020. “And that it’s the popular mandate that we force in the streets that’s going to force the politicians to do the right thing.”

She continued: “We have to be willing to create a crisis. We have to be willing to engage in social disruption and create crisis for the people in power who are creating harm.”

Ms Fithian said in an interview that she had remained around the campus as she felt tension rising Monday evening. By the time of the confrontation at the door, some protesters had already entered the building. As another group of protesters was trying to drag a picnic table to barricade one of Hamilton Hall’s doors, the two young men who opposed the demonstration tried to prevent their efforts.

The counterprotesters appeared on Fox News on Wednesday morning and identified themselves as Rory Wilson and Charles Beck, both Columbia students.

Mr. Wilson can be heard on the video captured by The New York Times describing his reason for showing up at the demonstration. “I think this is completely inappropriate, and I’m peacefully protesting this protest,” he says.

Ms. Fithian said she involved herself in an effort to “keep things as safe as possible.” She said she was encouraging the men to get out of the way because it was clear to her that they would not be able to stop the situation.

“Relax, relax, you’re not going to make them stop this,” she can be heard saying in the video.

She added in an interview, “It was along the lines of trying to be chill and talking to them in a rational way about, ‘Please, don’t be here.’”

Videos from the scene also show Ms. Fithian later using a profanity to describe the counterprotesters, and insisting to them that “this is a historic moment.”

“Sometimes historic moments aren’t great,” one of them replied.

Ms. Fithian acknowledged she grew impatient with the students blocking the door and wondered if they might be working in tandem with a woman standing nearby who was filming the scene with a phone.

Ms. Fithian’s website notes that she is available for trainings, consultations and organizing projects. She is often described as a “protest consultant,” a label she rejected.

“It’s my life’s work,” she said on Tuesday. “Of course, if I can get paid for it, I want to. If it’s an organization bringing me in to train staff, of course I want to get paid. But if you’re talking about young people in the street who are throwing down, I don’t even want to take donations.”

Andrew Keh covers New York City and the surrounding region for The Times. More about Andrew Keh

Katherine Rosman covers newsmakers, power players and individuals making an imprint on New York City. More about Katherine Rosman

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