Protesters at Columbia University were allegedly sprayed with a hazardous chemical while attending a pro-Palestinian “divestment now” rally on Low Steps on Friday, Jan. 19, according to nearly two dozen students who reported a foul smell, physical symptoms or property damage after the protest.
The Columbia Spectator conducted interviews with four students, collected testimonials from eight protest attendees under the condition of anonymity via a Google Form only open to LionMail accounts and reviewed 12 reports submitted to Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Eighteen students reported a putrid smell during or after the protest, 10 reported physical symptoms such as burning eyes, headaches and nausea — with three having sought medical attention — and eight reported damage to their personal belongings.
Two students expressed concerns about their safety on campus during interviews with the Spectator, fearing that incidents like this may continue.
Public Safety “is investigating incidents reported in connection with Friday’s protest that are of great concern,” according to a Sunday evening statement from the department. The department received an initial complaint on Friday night and additional complaints on Sunday, according to the statement, and “has been actively working with local and federal authorities in this investigation, with the NYPD taking a lead role.”
Several students identified the substance as “Skunk”, a chemical developed in Israel and used for crowd control in the West Bank.
“While the investigation is proceeding, we continue to seek the university community’s support: Reporting is essential so that the proper authorities — including the NYPD — can track down the facts and take action as necessary,” the statement reads. “It is important for people to come forward if they have any information, and we are grateful to the members of our community who already have.”
A New York Police Department spokesperson told the Spectator on Sunday afternoon that it received one report and is investigating the incident. No arrests have been made, the spokesperson said.
Earlier on Sunday, a Columbia University official confirmed that the university was “aware of social media posts on an alleged incident” and “conferring with the NYPD.” At the time, Public Safety had received one complaint, according to the official.
Three students identified the substance as “Skunk”, a chemical developed by the Israeli firm Odortec and employed by the Israeli military against demonstrators in the West Bank, according to the BBC. The company Mistral Security supplies Skunk in the United States and describes the “non-lethal vile smelling liquid” as causing crowds to “cease their activities while allowing law enforcement to gain control with minimum injuries and casualties.”
Maia, BC ’24, who spoke to the Spectator on the condition that she be identified by only her first name, citing safety concerns, said she witnessed a person in an orange jacket allegedly spraying protesters after Friday’s march, when students gathered back on Low Steps. She said two people with their faces “pretty much all covered” by keffiyehs stood out to her because their keffiyehs appeared to be a slightly different color and pattern from the black and white ones sold by student groups on campus.
“I noticed them come up behind different people at the edges of the protest and would stand there for like a second,” Maia said.
She said she eventually came close enough to the individuals that she could hear and smell the spray.
“Once they were closest to me, behind someone that was near me, I heard a little spraying sound,” Maia said. She said she noticed the individuals walk away, “and then it started smelling really bad.”
Layla Saliba, SSW ’25, said she noticed individuals of the same description acting “unusual” and approaching students holding a “CU Jews for Ceasefire” banner, calling the protesters “self-hating Jews.”
“They were referring to students as ‘Jew killers’ and ‘terrorists,’” Saliba said.
Shay, CC ’26, who spoke to the Spectator on the condition that they be identified by only their first name, citing safety concerns, said their coat is now ruined as a result of the Skunk spray.
They said it belonged to their late grandmother and was “very meaningful” to them. Shay, who is Jewish, said they are concerned that the protests are getting framed as “Jewish students versus Palestinian students” when “it’s not this binary that people make it out to be, and we are being targeted by this as well.”
“I think it’s very important because attacks on pro-Palestinian protesters are not for Jewish safety,” Shay said. “It’s actually hurting.”
The New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the alleged attack and “demanded law enforcement investigate the incident as a possible hate crime” in a Saturday news release.
Columbia’s chapter of Students Supporting Israel released a statement on Sunday condemning “any actions of any individuals who may engage in behaviors with the intent to cause physical or psychological harm to other Columbia students.”
— The Columbia Spectator, edited for style and space.