IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Who were the ‘outsiders’ at Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall?

Those taken into custody included a former animal abuse investigator who was arrested in a violent protest in San Francisco nearly 20 years ago.
israel hamas conflict columbia university nypd riot gear
NYPD officers arrive in riot gear to evict a building at Columbia University, in New York City on April 30.Kena Betancur / AFP - Getty Images

When James Carlson was arrested inside Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall, he was already under investigation for snatching an Israeli flag out of a man’s hand near campus and setting it on fire. 

That wasn’t the first time Carlson, who has no affiliation with Columbia, had run afoul of the law. He was arrested in San Francisco in 2005 during a violent protest organized by an anarchist group, according to a senior law enforcement official.  

The 40-year-old animal rights lawyer is among the group of “professional outsiders” cast by the New York City police department and mayor as having a significant role in the takeover of Hamilton Hall. 

arrested at columbia university's Hamilton Hall during student protests, but he is not a student; he is an animal rights lawyer
James Carlson.Obtained by NBC News

Large, drawn-out protests like the one at Columbia have a tendency to attract people with a diffuse set of ideologies and motivations, experts say. Roughly 30% of those arrested at Hamilton Hall on Tuesday had no affiliation with the school, according to university officials.

But while there is no doubt that the occupation of the building amounted to a dramatic escalation in tactics, it remains unclear how large an influence outsiders like Carlson have had on the overall student protest movement at Columbia and nearby colleges, which began more than two weeks ago. 

Some of the student protesters think the narrative pushed by city and university officials — of dangerous outsiders co-opting the demonstrations — is fueled by ulterior motives. 

“I really struggle a lot with the whole narrative of outside agitators because I see it as a means through which to justify violence,” Soph Askanse, a junior at the neighboring Barnard College,  said in an interview. “And to claim that because individuals are not students, they are thus deserving of police brutality.”

Rory Wilson, 22, a Columbia senior who did not participate in the protests, offered a different take. 

After midnight on Tuesday, Wilson and a friend placed themselves outside a Hamilton Hall door for several minutes to prevent the protesters from barricading it shut. Video footage released by the city showed a 63-year-old activist named Lisa Fithian at the center of the action, directing the protesters on how to barricade the doors and referring to Wilson and his friend as “assholes.”

“She was right in the middle of it, instructing them how to better set up the barricades,” said Wilson, who has Jewish heritage but is not a practicing Jew. “Given that the barricades were a pretty central part of the plan of how to take over Hamilton, I’d expect that she would have been pretty central in the logistics planning.”

Fithian, who has not responded to requests for comment, was not among those arrested on Tuesday.

Lisa Fithian
Lisa Fithian.Antonio Planas-Masi / NBC News

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Columbia University President Minouche Shafik called out the prevalence of outsiders after the protesters seized Hamilton Hall. The police swarmed the building late Tuesday and made a wave of other arrests at Columbia and the nearby City College of New York.

A total of 46 people have been charged with trespassing in connection with the building’s occupation, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. 

At least 13 of them had no affiliation with the university, a Columbia spokesperson said. The rest included at least 14 Columbia undergraduates, nine graduate students and two employees. Six others were students from affiliated schools, the university spokesman said. 

“The numbers shared by the NYPD about arrests made on April 30 reflect the expectations we had regarding the occupation of Hamilton Hall,” said Ben Chang, Columbia’s vice president of communications. 

“A significant portion of those who broke the law and occupied Hamilton Hall were outsiders. While 14 were Columbia undergraduate students, the majority were a mix of adults, including graduate students, two employees, and outsiders unaffiliated with Columbia University.”

NBC News matched the names in court records with names and affiliations from the Columbia email directory and found roughly the same percentage of people with no ties to the university.

At least eight of those arrested inside Hamilton Hall were above the age of 30, NBC News found, and the two employees appear to be junior researchers working in Columbia University labs. 

Overall, of the 112 people arrested at Columbia on Tuesday, 32 had no affiliation with the school, or 29%, according to the mayor’s office and the New York Police Department. Out of the 170 people arrested at the City College of New York, 102 people had no ties to the school, or 60%.  

Allie Wong, a Ph.D. student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was among a group of protesters who formed a human chain in front of Hamilton Hall. She said a police officer roughed her up when they broke up the crowd, striking her with an unknown object that caused a golf ball-sized welt on her head.

The New York Fire Department said three people suffered minor injuries during the arrests. Two were taken to the hospital and one was treated at the scene.  

Wong, who was charged with trespassing, would not comment on the role of outsiders in the protests. But she said the description of them as “outside agitators” was “baseless and incorrect.”

Wilson, the student with Jewish family members who tried to stop the barricading of Hamilton Hall, said he understood the rationale for the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus but believes that the building occupation was not productive.

“I totally understand why they would be extraordinarily sad and angry about the loss of life in Gaza,” Wilson said of the broader protest movement. 

He added that he believes a college campus is a place where the conflict should be analyzed and debated, and people’s voices should be heard. “That was not happening with the mob tactics, the smashing of university property and intimidating students,” he said. 

The outsiders

Carlson, who also goes by Cody Carlson and Cody Tarlson, was the oldest of the protesters arrested inside Hamilton Hall. Neither he nor his lawyer returned requests for comment.

Carlson has been a frequent presence at protests around the city since the start of Israel’s offensive in Gaza following Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault, according to the NYPD official. 

He is accused of taking part in a chaotic incident near the Columbia campus during a protest on April 20. As a 22-year-old man carrying an Israeli flag was walking around the demonstration, Carlson yanked the flag out of his hands and took off, police said. 

As the victim gave chase, some other members of the crowd threw rocks at the man, police said. Carlson was captured on video setting the flag on fire with a lighter, according to a criminal complaint.  

He has pleaded not guilty to charges of arson and criminal mischief, according to court records. The Manhattan District Attorney is investigating the incident as a possible hate crime, a spokesperson said. 

A graduate of Brooklyn Law School, he worked as a litigation fellow with the Humane Society of the U.S. from 2014 to 2016, a spokeswoman said. Carlson has also worked as an undercover investigator who recorded animal abuse at places like dairy farms and slaughterhouses, according to a 2015 New York Times story. 

‘‘Learn to walk the walk and talk the talk,’’ Carlson told the paper. 

Years earlier, he was arrested at a demonstration in San Francisco where a police officer was struck in the head by an unknown object and suffered skull fractures while confronting protesters. The rally had been organized by a group called Anarchist Action, which opposed the Group of Eight summit held in Scotland the previous week, according to local news clips.

Carlson, who was then 21, was charged with rioting, resisting arrest and wearing a mask. The case was dropped two years later after he completed a pretrial diversion program, according to a San Francisco court clerk. 

The group of outsiders arrested on Tuesday at the City College of New York included a 32-year-old man who has an extensive history of protest-related arrests dating back to 2012 in California, according to a senior law enforcement official.

The man, Rudy Ralph Martinez, has a criminal record in the New York area that includes charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction, the official said. The disposition of the cases was not known. 

Martinez’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Another man with no university ties who was arrested on Tuesday at City College has had “numerous protest-related arrests,” the official said. The man, Jacob Isaac Gabriel, was part of a group that disrupted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last year, the official said. It was not clear whether he was convicted. 

Gabriel’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. 

Brian Higgins, a former Bergen County police chief and lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said large protests often serve as a magnet for a certain kind of person.  

“The larger number are going to be those people who are well meaning,” Higgins said. “They have a cause — whether it’s the George Floyd murder or Palestine and Israel. But there are those who use those well meaning people for other purposes.”

“It’s not always nefarious,” he added. “But there are people who make a living off of protests.”

CORRECTION (May 6, 2024, 1:36 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated where Allie Wong is studying for her Ph.d. She is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, not the philosophy department.