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A Small Campus in the Redwoods Has the Nation’s Most Entrenched Protest

When university administrators across the country worry about the potential consequences of campus protests, they may think of Siemens Hall.

The California State Polytechnic University building in Humboldt houses the campus president’s office and has been occupied for a week by pro-Palestinian protesters who barricaded themselves inside and repelled an initial attempt of the police to expel them. Protesters have since spray-painted the walls and renamed it “Intifada Hall” by tearing down most of the signs on the brick exterior.

Inside, they painted graffiti such as “Time 2 Free Gaza,” “Pigs Not Allowed” and “Land Back,” according to a video posted by local news site Redheaded Blackbelt. They occupied and defaced the office of President Tom Jackson Jr., spraying “Blood on Your Hands” on a framed wall and “I’ll Live Free or Die Trying” on his door.

The school, located more than 275 miles north of San Francisco, among ancient coastal redwoods dripping with fog, is the site of the nation’s most entrenched college protest. This goes well beyond encampments on student quads elsewhere; At Cal Poly Humboldt, protesters seized the power center of the campus and rejected increasingly desperate pleas from officials to leave.

The university closed the entire campus, first for a few days, then a week and now until May 10, a day before its scheduled opening. After the Siemens Hall takeover, protesters set up dozens of tents on patches of grass around the hall and took over a second building to use its restrooms and hold meetings. University officials estimate the damage at several million dollars.

For those outside Northern California, the show of force at Cal Poly Humboldt in the college town of Arcata was a surprising turn in a region more typically associated with hippie pacifism and marijuana farms. But behind that good-natured image, residents say, a culture of protest and resentment toward authority has seeped into the 6,000-student campus.

“Because of the long history of activism, we recognize that pitching a tent in front of the building may not be as effective as a student protest statement,” said Anthony Silvaggio, professor and chair of the sociology department from school. department and was a student at the university in the 1990s.

The region’s majestic redwoods attract tourists from around the world; nearby, visitors can walk through a tree with a diameter of 21 feet. Forests also satisfied the West’s growing thirst for lumber from the earliest days of the Gold Rush, when San Francisco became a boom town.

However, natural beauty and the wood industry have long been at odds. The region was an early battleground in the “timber wars,” in which environmentalists fought logging companies to prevent the destruction of the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps the most famous protest of this era took place in Humboldt County, where activist Julia Butterfly Hill lived for 738 days in a California redwood tree she named Luna.

Cal Poly Humboldt had humble beginnings, opening in 1914 as the Humboldt State Normal School to train teachers, starting with a class of 15 women. Its academic mission expanded over the next century to offer a wide range of subjects, including forestry. (The school mascot is the Lumberjacks).

The campus is isolated from most of California, requiring at least a five-hour drive to reach San Francisco or Sacramento. Only 2 percent of undergraduates are Jewish, according to Hillel International, and the campus does not appear to have an active Jewish organization.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have made several demands since seizing Siemens Hall on April 22, including that the school disclose its holdings with Israel, divest from companies that profit from military action in Gaza, cut ties with Israeli universities and that charges be dropped against three students who were arrested on the first night. They also want the university to call for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Cal Poly Humboldt leaders responded point by point, revealing the school’s involvements and collaborations with Israel in an effort to “make a good faith effort to respond.” But by Friday, administrators had apparently had enough. They told the building’s occupants that they had a brief “opportunity to leave with the guarantee of not being arrested immediately.” A university spokeswoman said several protesters left the building, but demonstrators disputed that there was any desertion from their ranks.

On Sunday evening, the president’s team again asked them to “leave campus peacefully now,” but this time without an offer of immunity.

The university said in a statement that the protest had “nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of inquiry” and called the demonstrations “lawless behavior” that has harmed students, harmed to the reputation of the school and “drained the resources necessary to achieve our main educational objective”. .”

The protesters see things differently.

“The graffiti, the destruction of property, it’s all poetic symbolism to me, because the bottom line is people are more valuable than property,” said Cozy Hunter, 32, a graduate student in psychology research social.

In 2019, Mr. Jackson became president of Humboldt after serving in the same role at Black Hills State University in South Dakota. Mr. Jackson, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, was instrumental in transforming the campus into a polytechnic university, one of three in California, with a greater emphasis on STEM disciplines. The overhaul came with $458 million from the state, a welcome cash infusion into a school that was at risk of closing due to declining enrollment over the years.

“I’m an engineer, so when he brought the money and turned this into Cal Poly, it was really cool because we had been making budget cuts for years,” said Jim Graham, professor of geospatial sciences.

While previous campus presidents have engaged with student protesters and generally authorized sit-ins, Mr. Jackson has been more distant and taken a tougher approach, Mr. Graham said.

In November, after the university discovered that some students were living in their vehicles on campus because they could not afford housing, the school ordered them to move out or face disciplinary action. In 2022, Mr. Jackson apologized for comments he made during a welcome speech that some saw as an attempt to hide reports of sexual assault in the campus community.

“That was kind of the beginning of its complete demise,” said Cindy Moyer, chair of the university’s department of dance, music and theater. “He doesn’t seem to be taking controversy well.”

Mr. Jackson was not available for comment, according to a spokeswoman. But last Friday, he told the local Times-Standard newspaper that the protesters were “criminals” and did not rule out sending the police at some point. “Everything is on the table,” he said.

Bob Ornelas, a former Arcata mayor and college graduate, said the response to the protest in the community, which is largely liberal, has been “really mixed.” Mr. Ornelas, 70, said many residents are sympathetic but also worried about the effects on local businesses and worried about potential divisions within the community.

Since the protests began, the 32-room Arcata Hotel has lost about $1,000 a day due to cancellations, from special events to rooms for graduate families. said Sherrie Potter, 55, general manager of the hotel. The university has not canceled the start of the school year, although many wonder how it will still take place.

“I understand where they’re coming from, I do,” Ms. Potter said of the protesters. “But I’m torn. I also see how this hurts the college and the businesses around it, including ours.

Protesters said they initially wanted to stage a sit-in and voice their concerns directly to administrators. When local police arrived in riot gear, they feared for their safety and began barricading themselves inside, they said. Most declined to give their names because they feared retaliation from the university and said they did not want to be doxxed.

“The rate of acceleration and escalation has been incredibly high,” said Rouhollah Aghasaleh, an assistant professor of education who has tried to facilitate communication between the protesters and the university.

Over the weekend, as the likelihood of a police incursion increased, protesters reinforced the barricades blocking their encampment with chain-link fences, rows of chairs and large sheets of glass. In a nod to previous environmental protests in the area, they installed a “tree” about 20 meters high in a redwood tree near the quad, with a wooden platform inscribed with the phrases “Liberate Gaza.” and “End of the Empire”. The protester manning the perch — who wouldn’t give a name other than “Ripples” — set up with a mattress topper, a sleeping bag and a wind-up radio.

“A tree sitter actually indicates that there is a desire for a much longer occupation,” said Ms. Hunter, the graduate student. “Because a tree sitter – especially in this area after Julia Butterfly Hill – is just saying, ‘Oh, I’m willing to defend Palestine until there’s complete divestment from the United States.’ . That’s essentially what this decision means.

José Quezada contributed reporting from Arcata, Calif., and Shawn Hubler contributed from Sacramento.

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