Occupation, lockdown, tree sit-in: How Cal Poly Humboldt became California’s epicenter of pro-Palestinian student activism

A student sits in a tree
(Beau Saunders / For The Times)
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Good morning. It’s Wednesday, May 1. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Protests are not new at Cal Poly Humboldt

In the predawn hours of Tuesday, police arrested at least 25 pro-Palestinian protesters at Cal Poly Humboldt, ending the weeklong occupation of Siemens Hall, which houses the campus president’s, provost’s and dean of students’ offices.

The arrests followed a tense standoff between law enforcement and protesters Monday evening, when police told more than 100 demonstrators to leave. Around 9 p.m., a law enforcement vehicle drove by, announcing that the protesters could be subject to rubber bullets and chemical agents.

The protesters maintained their position as dozens of law enforcement officers in riot gear, clutching guns and batons, marched into the university’s quad and cleared out Siemens Hall. There were no reported injuries.


School officials called Tuesday’s police action “necessary to restore order and to address the lawlessness and dangerous conditions” on campus. They earlier cited “hateful graffiti” and other damage to school property.

A crowd of protesters holding signs and Palestinian flags on campus
Students and community members gather on the edge of campus.
(Beau Saunders / For The Times)

“What was occurring was not free expression or a protest,” officials wrote. “It was criminal activity, and there were serious concerns it would spread even further on campus.”

On April 22, students barricaded the entrance of Siemens Hall with chairs and tables and pitched a banner that said “STOP THE GENOCIDE.”

The pro-Palestinian demonstrators are calling on the university to support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and divest from any investments that connect to Israel’s military or government. Administrators have so far declined.

Tensions quickly escalated among students, faculty and administration, prompting the university to close down multiple times, then eventually for the remainder of the semester.


It is unclear when the university will reopen, though university officials say they are doing everything in their “power to ensure [students] have the opportunity to walk across a stage” during the commencement ceremony, which is scheduled for May 11.

Cal Poly Humboldt’s deep-rooted history of student activism indicates a larger story, one that explains how the university became one of the nation’s leading sites of pro-Palestinian campus protests.

Faculty support

Stephanie Burkhalter is a professor in Cal Poly Humboldt’s department of politics. She’s also been involved in negotiations to peacefully resolve the occupation and meet students’ demands, which she described as “not excessive.”

Burkhalter said faculty have mostly been in a supportive role, offering food and suggesting nonviolent direct action.

She and many fellow faculty members believe Cal Poly Humboldt President Tom Jackson Jr.’s decisions to authorize a police response and close the campus were unwarranted and only escalated the situation. Her voice broke as she expressed respect for students “risking so much.”


“I think they’re incredibly brave, facing all sorts of academic and other types of sanctions to bring this message to the world,” Burkhalter said.

But their activism is spreading, she noted. Three other CSU campuses now have encampments: Sacramento State, Sonoma State and San Francisco State.

Last week, Cal Poly Humboldt faculty returned an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Jackson. More than 300 faculty and staff signed a letter Monday demanding that he and his chief of staff, Mark Johnson, resign or be removed immediately. The letter was sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom, CSU Chancellor Mildred García and other officials.

“Their repeatedly extreme and reckless actions in response to recent campus protests have systematically endangered students, staff, and faculty, undermined the principles of shared governance, and shattered any remaining trust in their leadership,” faculty leaders wrote.

California Faculty Assn. is a union of 29,000 professors, lecturers, librarians, counselors and coaches who teach and serve in the CSU system. The association’s Humboldt chapter is demanding that the university remove academic sanctions and release those arrested because of the protests, said Anthony Silvaggio, the union’s vice president.

“It’s so blatantly obvious that this is just an attempt to criminalize people who are just doing general civil disobedience,” said Silvaggio, who also leads Cal Poly Humboldt’s department of sociology. “There’s no rhyme or reason.”


A tradition of activism on campus

While its enrollment makes it the fourth smallest CSU campus, student and faculty activism at Cal Poly Humboldt dates to the 1960s, taking action in opposition to racial segregation in Southern states, the Vietnam War and other social and environmental justice issues into the following decades.

“This is our campus culture,” Burkhalter said, noting the forest defense movements of the 1980s and 1990s that played out in redwood-rich Humboldt County. That type of activism is still visible on the campus.

“We currently have a tree sitter ... 60 feet up in a redwood tree,” Burkhalter said. “It’s on brand to be committed to important issues and have a response to those issues.”

In 2015, students protested against the unexpected firing of the chair of the Indian Natural Resource Science & Engineering Program by occupying the university’s Native American Forum for a week. The university’s president at the time — Lisa Rossbacher — visited the sit-in and praised the students’ action.


When students occupied Siemens Hall, which Silvaggio called the “hall of power,” he wasn’t surprised, because “that’s where students go to hold people accountable.”

“We have a mission of social justice and environmental sustainability,” he said. “So our students come here, embracing that ethos and ... this is their response to those contradictions and to the atrocities that are committed in Palestine.”

Burkhalter also criticized what she views as Jackson’s lack of engagement on campus. She believes some of his recent decisions — such as barring low-income students who live in vehicles from parking on campus overnight — have fueled dissatisfaction, “leading to the kinds of escalations” that result in protests.

“The excessive police response is an indication of [Jackson] losing touch,” she said. “The distance there is very great.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Jackson was unavailable for an interview.

Our colleagues Jessica Garrison and Jenny Jarvie also reported on Cal Poly Humboldt becoming a “Gaza flash point.” You can read their coverage here.

Here’s more on campus protests:


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