The story of the northern California college that inspired campus protesters across America

The week at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, was supposed to be a celebratory one. In other years, the campus would be buzzing with activity around finals and commencement. Final-year students would be preparing to salute their alma mater goodbye.

Instead, the Cal Poly campus on this rugged part of California’s coast sat empty. Classes were held remotely, with students and professors unable to come on to campus. On Wednesday, graduating students were taking photos on the edges of campus, smiling in their caps and gowns. Just out of frame were the orange barriers and police cars blocking entrances.

Administrators at the public university implemented a strict lockdown last week, after students protesting the war in Gaza staged a week-long occupation of campus buildings in a high-profile demonstration that made headlines across the country and kicked off a new wave of activism on US college campuses.

Few outsiders expected the protests at the school, a university of 6,000 students at the edge of a forest of the redwoods this area is famous for, to unfold and reverberate the way they did. Maybe the students didn’t either when they started protesting in mid-April.

The working-class university and the broader community in Arcata and Humboldt county have a rich history of activism, from environmentalists fighting to defend ancient redwoods to student protests during the Vietnam war. When pro-Palestine demonstrations began picking up at other colleges last fall, Cal Poly Humboldt students were protesting against the university’s attempts to remove unhoused students living in their cars from campus parking.

On Gaza, the campus had remained relatively quiet. But horrified by the continuing violence in Gaza and the crackdown on protesters at Columbia University, Cal Poly students mobilized, two students said.

On 22 April, students began occupying Siemens Hall, a tall, centrally located administration building. They had intended to hold a sit-in, in part to escape the cold of the foggy region, and only barricaded themselves in the building using furniture, tents, chains and zip-ties after a large group of police arrived on campus, students said in interviews with the Guardian.

In footage that quickly went viral, students could be seen chanting, “We are not afraid of you” before officers in riot gear swung batons at the group. The students held on to one another amid the melee, with one using a plastic water jug to strike an officer’s helmet.

“I thought I was going to be able to be there for an hour, and then go to my class and tell people like, guys, by the way, we started an occupation. Come see what’s going on, we’re doing something,” said one student, who asked to remain anonymous because they were one of the first in the building. “And then we basically got besieged by the cops for six plus hours.”

“At first I was pretty scared. I felt angry and scared,” Stella Baumstone, a senior, said about the moment law enforcement sought to break up the peaceful demonstration. “The university was ready to respond with a heavy hand and ready to respond with violence.”

Police retreated later that night, but the aggressive response – captured on a livestream watched by students, faculty and community members – mobilized the campus and its surroundings.

In the following days, hundreds of people attended demonstrations around Siemens Hall, listening to punk and heavy metal bands playing music and engaging in discussions about what was happening in Gaza as well as activism and ethics. Jasmine Jolly, who is Jewish, helped organize a Seder near the protest and has rejected accusations of antisemitism leveled against protesters. “We deeply understand the human right to life, and we deeply understand our duty to repair the world,” Jolly said.

The students demanded the university disclose and cut financial ties with Israel and Israeli universities, divest from companies and corporations with ties to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, publicly call for a ceasefire, and amend its policy around protests.

The president of the university, Tom Jackson, had a different view, describing the protesters in an interview with the local newspaper as criminals, and warning they would face repercussions. On 26 April, the university said it would close for the remainder of the semester in response to the protests. In official statements, the university accused the demonstrators of “criminal activity” and said hateful graffiti had been left on campus.

Days later, law enforcement cleared two buildings students had occupied in a massive police operation, one the university said was necessary to “restore order”. Dozens of people were arrested and at least one journalist was detained.

Maxwell Schnurer, the chair of the department of communication, said the university has seen numerous occupations in his almost 20 years there, and never have administrators and police had such an aggressive response.

“This was one of the finest moments of a university experience I’ve ever seen. And the response was to quash it,” he said.

The university and Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.

But the students’ actions and response from law enforcement reverberated across the US, and inspired similar actions at other universities. The image of the water jug was recreated on stickers and art at other protests.

“We were the first campus to occupy a building,” Jolly said. “And I think that is massive, and it has clearly had a ripple effect. And it also got a lot of eyes on Palestine that were not there before.”

Pro-Palestinian protesters in a standoff with campus police at Cal Poly Humboldt. Photograph: Andrew Goff/AP

Their tactics also brought movement on campus, and in the community. The faculty senate called on Jackson to resign and approved a vote of no confidence. Administrators also disclosed investments and ties with Israel.

The students’ arguments also resonated locally, as protesters advocated for the landback movement in their occupation, highlighting the region’s history of violence against Native American people, and using signs and graffiti to draw attention to the case of Josiah Lawson, a black Humboldt student leader who was killed at a party in 2017.

While their generation is often mocked as TikTok obsessed and Covid-scarred, they took bodily risks to bring attention to the cause, Schnurer said.

“They absolutely won. Civilian deaths in Gaza went to the top of the university agenda and conversation,” Schnurer said. “They took Palestine from probably No 27 in the list of issues in this community and moved it to the top of the list.”

In the week since the occupation ended, things have been up in the air, Jolly said. “No one really knows what’s going on.”

One professor, Rouhollah Aghasaleh, and roughly 70 students have received suspensions, but it’s not entirely clear what that means or what repercussions students will face.

The students were banned from campus, which forced some to move from campus housing and prevented others from working, said Gabi Kirk, a professor of geography who has been working with suspended students.

Students were initially told they would be suspended until the occupations ended or 12 May, although that has since been extended, students said. Students who were supposed to graduate are unsure of whether they will receive their degree.

Still, many remain proud of their activism. “The amount of students who have said, ‘What we are going through pales to what Palestinians are going through in the face of a genocide,’ has been incredibly, incredibly moving,” Kirk said. “A lot of students feel even more a sense of resolve that what they’re doing is for justice, and that history will vindicate them and us as having been on the right side of history.”

Baumstone, who was supposed to graduate with a degree in environmental studies, is among those whose future is unclear. The university recently placed a hold on her student account, she said, which prevents her from graduating until the disciplinary process is complete.

“It’s been difficult,” Baumstone said. “On the other hand, I think about all the people in Palestine and Gaza who are just dealing with such harsh realities.

“I think of it as an honor to have been suspended fighting this.”

The university announced last week it would split commencement into three different ceremonies held off campus.

At the same time, Humboldt for Palestine, a local activist group, will host a memorial commencement where students can dedicate their graduation to a Palestinian child who will never have the opportunity to attend university.

There are no universities left in Gaza, Baumstone said. “Thousands of people my age have either been killed or will never get a degree,” she said.

The Guardian

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