Several students were sprayed with a chemical substance during a rally for Gaza on Jan. 19. Photo: Witchblue at it.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0

Just under two weeks ago, a couple of NYPD officers were beaten by a group of people in Times Square that were alleged to be migrants. I say so as a reminder, because you’ve probably already heard about it — it’s been front page news practically every day since then.

To summarize, an officer apparently tried to arrest a person who was part of a group outside a Times Square migrant shelter, and the group ended up attacking the officers, who sustained minor injuries. Charges were announced against multiple people, including at least one whose charges have now been dropped. Six charges are moving forward, and the fact that all but one of the defendants were released without bail — in accordance with state law — has become a significant point of attack against Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg.

The wild theorizing started almost immediately. In one notable example, commentators claimed that a group of migrants detained in Arizona were suspects in the case, a theory dispelled by the New York Post itself, which has been perhaps most responsible for fanning the flames.

There’s a separate recent incident I want to raise, one that you quite likely haven’t heard about: almost three weeks ago, a group of pro-Palestinian student protesters at Columbia University were approached by two people with covered faces and sprayed with a chemical agent that some sources say is likely the crowd-control irritant known as “skunk,” which was developed for and is used by the Israeli military. Multiple students were forced to go to the hospital, where they received confirmation of symptoms related to chemical inhalation and exposure. 

The university announced that the alleged perpetrators — who have not been publicly identified but which student groups claim are two current Columbia students, both of whom were alleged to have served in the Israeli defense forces — were banned from campus, and that it was cooperating with both local and federal investigators. Nearly three weeks out, no arrests or charges have been announced. As far as I can tell, there have been two articles in the last week, one from the Times of Israel and one from the site Prism. No local coverage.

I want to emphasize that while my point here is about the disparate treatment and coverage of the two incidents, which seems entirely downstream of political preferences and dominant narratives, I’m not even really talking about the underlying politics.

Anyone who’s read this newsletter with regularity over the past nearly three years knows more or less where I stand on immigration issues, and I have my own set of perspectives on the situation in Gaza and Israel. But I am not here to litigate either of those issues in detail, because my observation is more fundamental: there were two attacks that each seem, on their face, to be pretty serious, but the public reaction couldn’t be more different.

One has been a dominant story in local and even some national news for days; has become a talking point for Governor Kathy Hochul and a national political flashpoint. It even threatens to become a wedge issue in the ongoing congressional race in the Long Island district formerly held by George Santos — a crucial election in an environment where the House GOP has control by a margin of three votes. To put it another way, this one incident has plausible odds of helping swing an election in Republicans’ favor at a moment where the party is quietly considering federal abortion restrictions and needs pretty much every last vote to do it.

The other incident has all but disappeared from coverage, even though the perpetrators — who, to reiterate, sprayed a chemical agent that led several people to have urgent medical treatment— remain at large and apparently unperturbed. On Monday, I sent an email to the NYPD’s public information office asking for an update on the investigation, and was told simply that “there are no arrests and the investigation remains ongoing.” Anyone who’s dealt with police communications strategy for some time knows that they’ll lay on the details when they want, and this kind of non-answer is its own type of answer, the basic equivalent of a shrug. Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Adams this week donned a bulletproof vest and personally joined an NYPD raid on an alleged migrant-run robbery ring. It seems pretty clear where the priorities lie. 

So I have this question to ask: who is more dangerous, if pure public safety is the goal? A group of migrants who spontaneously attacked a couple cops who were arresting one of them — certainly not an inconsequential incident — or a couple of unknown people, at least one of whom students are alleging is former military, who planned and executed an attack on protesters using a chemical agent that is typically only obtainable by police and security forces?

Brass tacks, stripped of political context and looked at simply as a matter of harm and potential for harm, I would argue the second group here is a bigger threat to public order. They had to have premeditated this, sketched it out, obtained the skunk either illegally or somehow using security credentials, and attacked a group of people specifically for engaging in protected speech. Are they planning more attacks? Are they going to use even more dangerous tools next time? Who knows! So far, they appear to be sitting pretty.

If your reaction to all this is some variation of, well, duh, enforcement isn’t and has never been meted out equally and these types of decisions are always politically inflected, then that’s kind of my point. None of this is really that surprising. If you’d presented this to me as a pure hypothetical before either of these incidents actually happened, I would probably sketch out a trajectory close to what’s actually happened. Just hand-waving it away as what things are like doesn’t get us anywhere, though.

We risk becoming inured to it, to stop asking the questions that seem obvious but carry a lot of weight. Why are the migrants worth chasing around the country while we get “no arrests, investigation ongoing” for the Columbia attackers, whose identities are clearly known to the university and almost certainly to the police? I’ll bet we know the answers, but we should be asking them anyway, to law enforcement, to our elected officials, to our reporters and editors, to ourselves.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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    1. It seems that it may be a bit more than pepper spray. Out of curiosity are you ok with people using pepper spray on those peacefully protesting?

  1. Great article & thanks for shedding light on the Columbia attacks. I’ve heard about this through X accounts from students who were attacked. Not much from mainstream media ( as usual). It’s concerning but not surprising there is no coverage or any concerns on the IDF soldiers openly attacking Americans on US soil. Terrorist attack? I guess it doesn’t fit the narrative ….

    1. The claim that it was “IDF soldiers” is merely an allegation by some students, it hasn’t been verified (nor has the claim that it was some military grade chemical agent of sorts).

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