In the six-second video clip, pro-Palestinian protesters are heard chanting and banging at the closed doors of the library at the Cooper Union, a top arts, architecture and engineering school in New York City. Inside, a small group of Jewish students looks on nervously.
Then the clip ends. It is the briefest snapshot of a frightening moment at a school of less than 1,000 students in Manhattan’s East Village.
But within a couple of hours, images of the encounter on Oct. 25 spread globally on social media. The pro-Palestinian protesters had dispersed just a few minutes later and no one was injured or arrested, but the story seemed to grow more dire the further it traveled. Posts that went viral falsely claimed that the library had been barricaded to protect the students inside from an angry mob, and that the police were afraid to get involved.
The Cooper Union protest quickly became a symbol, to some, of rising antisemitism on American college campuses during the Israel-Hamas war. The Cooper Union, typically low-profile, was mentioned repeatedly at a Republican presidential debate.
Now, amid questions from Congress about how campuses are reckoning with antisemitism, the Cooper Union is one of more than a dozen colleges under federal investigation following complaints of discrimination.
And with campus speech under an intense public microscope, the episode at the library and its aftermath show how a brief moment, free of context or nuance, can be repurposed by partisans in service of broader political rhetoric during a war in which information is an important weapon.
“Off-campus groups are very motivated to weaponize these protests,” said Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. But the stakes of campus activism are now perilous. “What, 20 or 30 years ago, could have been an incident that nobody would find out about unless they were actually there has now become one that can be circulated globally and be a life-changing experience.”
The Cooper Union has a proud tradition of activism. Abraham Lincoln gained momentum in his presidential campaign with an antislavery speech there in 1860. In 2013, students occupied the college president’s office for 65 days to protest a plan to charge tuition at the school, which had always been free.
But like many colleges around the country, the school struggled to respond to the Israel-Hamas war in a way that satisfied a deeply divided student body.
After the Oct. 7 attacks, Laura Sparks, the president of the Cooper Union, published a message expressing outrage over the “violent and deadly terrorist attacks on Israeli people by Hamas.” But as the death toll mounted in Gaza, some students felt the school was not doing enough to acknowledge Palestinian civilian deaths or the war’s wider context.
Among them was Mathieu Magloire-Wilson, a 21-year-old art student who had just spent five months as an exchange student in Jerusalem.
A printmaker from New Jersey and the president of the school’s Black Student Union, he began printing and distributing small books containing articles about the conditions in the Palestinian territories.
Soon, students on both sides of the conflict were putting up posters and images of Palestinian or Israeli flags around campus. Many were taken down.
By Oct. 25, the day of the library encounter, the climate on campus was tense.
At 1 p.m. that day, about 70 students left class as part of a national pro-Palestinian student walkout, forming a semicircle outside the building and chanting. About 20 pro-Israel counterprotesters lined up between the pro-Palestinian protesters and the school.
Three hours later, roughly 20 of the pro-Palestinian protesters went inside — blowing past security guards who told them to stop, video shows — to bring demands, including that the college call for a cease-fire and end its exchange program with Israel, directly to the college president on the seventh floor. Ms. Sparks locked her door, but told the police that she did not feel threatened and allowed the protest to continue, the police said.
While the protest continued upstairs, some of the pro-Israel protesters went into the library, according to a college official who reviewed security footage.
After nearly an hour, the pro-Palestinian protesters went downstairs and reached the library on the ground floor. A security guard shut its large gray doors and stood outside them.
In interviews, protesters said they did not know who was inside when they came to the doors, and were only angry about being kept out. They banged on the doors in time to their repetitive chant, “Free, free Palestine.”
“In no way was this an attack on Jewish people, Judaism, Jewish students or faculty members,” Mr. Magloire-Wilson said in an interview. The protesters, he said, see themselves as standing up for the Palestinian people.
But inside the library, the view was different. Students were visibly worried by the banging on the doors. It was then that the six-second video was recorded.
Several pro-Palestinian protesters and at least one Jewish student said in interviews that they believed the doors were locked. But the school said later that security footage showed they were not.
After two minutes, protesters moved to a glass wall along the side of the library. For about seven minutes, they held up posters, banged cardboard tubes and chanted, the school said.
Two of the students inside the library sat down at a table inches from the glass, a video shows. “Hey, let’s get a picture,” another student can be heard saying.
There is nervous laughter, and also concern.
“This is not peaceful,” a young woman says. One asks if the police were there.
After the protesters left, the library doors remained closed for 20 minutes — not to protect anyone, the school said, but to minimize disruption for the people studying and working there. The police had been there the whole time, and said there had been no cause to intervene. “At no time were they yelling out that they wanted to kill people,” Carlos Nieves, assistant commissioner for the Police Department, later said.
Within minutes, though, the campus dust-up had taken on a life of its own, embroiling students in a pitched national discussion about free speech and antisemitism on campus.
Jake Novak, a pro-Israel media personality with thousands of followers, posted the video that would go viral on the social platform X.
“BREAKING NOW: my sources tell me several Jewish students @cooperunion are currently locked in the school library as a pro Hamas rally outside of the cooper Union building learnt the Jews were afraid and sitting in the library, then brought the protest inside and are barricading all exits,” he wrote, after the event was already over.
He tagged major media outlets to get their attention.
Students protest outside Cooper Union’s library in New York City on Oct. 25, 2023.
Each post seemed to add more false details: that the Jewish students had escaped via a secret tunnel, for example, or had hidden in an attic.
Mr. Magloire-Wilson had his picture and name published in a social media post that accused him of “orchestrating the mob attack” against the Jewish students. His social media accounts were soon filled with racist insults and threats. Someone sent him a picture of a noose. He said he was frightened that someone might harm him, and worried about his future.
“An unfortunate thing about this is that it’s happening at such a large scale, this system of doxxing and forcing young students and people into this awful position,” he said.
The day after the protest, supporters of the Jewish students held a news conference calling for Ms. Sparks to resign.
The student who shot the six-second video, Taylor Roslyn Lent, was interviewed on Fox News. She said that while she wasn’t typically threatened by pro-Palestinian protests, she had felt threatened “when there were chants calling for the murder of Jews being chanted at me from my fellow students.”
(During the protest outside the school, students chanted various slogans, including the disputed phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” but they denied they were calling for violence.)
Ziporah Reich, director of litigation for the Lawfare Project, a pro bono legal organization, denied requests for interviews with Ms. Lent and the other Jewish students it was representing in a possible civil litigation against the school. She said her clients were the clear victims, and disputed details given by the school and the police.
Amy Binder, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins who researches student activism, said that disputes between students had become fodder for a growing number of organizations, most of them right-leaning, that call out political behavior they don’t support on campuses.
“It is incredibly divisive,” she said.
At the Cooper Union, the episode has further frayed trust between students on campus. A spokeswoman, Kim Newman, said that an internal review of the events was underway. “There is no tolerance here for discrimination, harassment or intimidation of any kind,” she said.
Ed Shanahan contributed reporting.