Monday, September 24, 2007

Big Signs Notebook: Ahmadinejad Visits Columbia, Campus and Community Fired Up

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- The din of the day is fading, but with the Columbia Coalition, a loose collection of student groups denouncing the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the university, some excitement is surely still in the tanks.

On the most frenetic day of the semester so far, I bounced to midtown around 10 a.m. for an interview and to take in the insanity of east midtown as it welcomed the United Nations General Assembly. On my return to campus, the event was well underway, and I caught the last few minutes of the speech simulcast to the giant viewing screen on the south side of College Walk.

Here are a handful of observations from the scene. Photos to follow later.

10:10 a.m., leaving the main gate at 116th Street and Broadway, a short, bearded, Jewish man was chanting, "Death to Ahmadinejad, the Hitler of Iran!" and giving out fliers calling on Columbia alums to cut off their donations as a punishment for Bollinger inviting the Iranian president. Inside campus, the "Press Pen," set up on Low Plaza, remained empty.

11:30 a.m., from the 61st floor of the Chrysler Building, 42nd Street leading to the United Nations is blocked off at First Avenue by dump trucks filled with sand, and lined west of First Avenue with NYPD vehicles and trusty orange traffic cones.

2:50 p.m., on return to the Morningside campus, one of two stairwells exiting the subway at 116th Street station is closed, guarded by a white-shirted (higher-ranking) NYPD officer. Another white-shirt and a regular P.O. circulated through the station. The protest was in full swing on both sides of Broadway, with police barricades restraining the crowd.

There were at least four satellite trucks up and running and another three or four microwave trucks along Broadway, beaming content to their stations. Just north of the protest scene, on the west side of Broadway at 118th Street, in front of Barnard College, a coach bus idled, perhaps awaiting protesters, perhaps bringing tourists to spectate.

A sampling of the signage: a professionally printed banner reading, "Charge Ahmadinejad with incitement of genocide," on one side of the barricades, and on the other, a handwritten poster board that said, "Free speech in USA."

A sampling of the chants: "Shame on Columbia!"

Entering campus from the 117th Street gate, and weaving through the smattering of students meandering about the north side of campus, it seemed tranquil, as if perhaps the event had ended. On reaching Low Plaza, however, the sea of students showed itself set up on the south lawn, transfixed by the speech simulcast to the super sized screen. There were at least 3,000 people covering the southeast corner of the quad.

Catching the tail end of Ahmadinejad's remarks, as I squinted to see the screen from an angle off to its left, he asserted, through a translator, that Iran's nuclear program "operates within the law."

Protesting students held a massive orange banner, so large it reached the chin of one standing, female protester, which read, "Ahmadinejad = Bad/ Bush = Worse/ No War on Iran" and called on students to join in a protest of U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday when he speaks at the United Nations.

Ahmadinejad condemned Iraq's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, and he concluded by reciprocating on Columbia's invitation to him by inviting students and faculty to Iran.

"I invite Columbia faculty members and students to come to Iran to speak with our faculty and students. You're officially invited," Ahmadinejad said. Perhaps backtracking from the broad invitation, he suggested that Columbia could pick the students, possibly from student government, to make a trip, and that Iran would supply a list of its 400-some universities that the entourage could visit.

As he ended his remarks, Ahmadinejad said to the audience, "Best of luck to all of you."

More to follow -- covering the media covering the events, counter-speeches, overheard student reactions.

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