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Campus Closed 

Fallout from protests at Cal Poly Humboldt continues

click to enlarge An Arcata police truck blocks access to the center of the Cal Poly Humboldt campus.

Mark Larson

An Arcata police truck blocks access to the center of the Cal Poly Humboldt campus.

In the week after Cal Poly Humboldt brought a large police force to campus to clear pro-Palestinian protesters from the area around Siemens Hall, arresting 32 people, including a professor and 13 students, the campus has remained closed, with discord seemingly growing between faculty and administration.

A group of several dozen protesters entered Siemens Hall the afternoon of April 22 with the intent of starting an open occupation, holding space in the building and surrounding area to raise awareness of the impact of the Israel-Hamas War on Palestinian civilians. When police attempted to clear the building that evening, the protesters tried to physically prevent them from entering and a tense, briefly violent, standoff ensued with police in riot gear trying to shove through the doorway with shields and batons as students pushed back. Some blows were exchanged, with a student using an empty 5-gallon plastic water jug to hit a helmeted officer over the head, and at least two officers delivering blows to protesters with a baton and an elbow, the exchange reportedly resulting in one protester being treated at a local hospital. When police retreated, the protesters barricaded themselves in the building, blocking its entrances and exits with tables and other furniture. An eight-day occupation ensued until the university brought in police from throughout the state to clear the campus, beginning around 3 a.m. on April 30.

Humboldt County District Attorney Stacey Eads said no charging decisions have yet been made regarding the arrested protesters, who were booked on suspicion of trespassing and unlawful assembly, among other charges, adding she had yet to receive investigative reports from police. All have been released from custody. Meanwhile, Cal Poly Humboldt has sent interim notices of suspension to 72 students "related to protest activities," though university spokespeople have repeatedly declined to answer how the students were identified as suspects and what campus policies they stand accused of violating.

As the dust settles from the protests and their abrupt end, here's a rundown of what's happened since more than 150 police officers in riot gear cleared the Arcata campus.

Civil Liberties Groups Push Back Against Campus Closure

In a May 1 letter to the campus community acknowledging "an extremely challenging week," Cal Poly Humboldt administrators charged that the "unlawful actions" taken by protesters put others and themselves at risk, and could not be tolerated.

"We have already begun assessing the state of the campus and working to clean up the buildings and grounds," the letter signed by President Tom Jackson Jr. and the school's top administrators said. "The campus will certainly remain closed through the end of the semester, likely much longer."

Responding to a Journal inquiry, CPH spokesperson Aileen Yoo advised that the hard closure of the campus instituted April 27 — under which people face citation or arrest for entering campus without permission — would remain in place indefinitely "due to clean-up work, concerns about maintaining the security of buildings, and the ongoing criminal and campus conduct investigations." Asked to clarify a prior statement that there would be no access to "Siemens Hall and Nelson Hall East and the areas surrounding both buildings, which should be considered to be crime scenes," Yoo noted the areas had been fenced off and were "still part of UPD's ongoing investigation."

In a separate email, Yoo advised local media they would need permission before accessing campus, and outlined a request process that required reporters to submit their press credentials, photo ID and emergency contact, as well as other information.

None of this sits well with the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition (FAC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLUNC). The organizations wrote a joint letter to Jackson on May 4 questioning the legality of the campus closure and media access procedures.

"We believe that the university's policy limiting public access — and especially press access — is constitutionally suspect," wrote FAC Legal Director David Loy and ACLUNC Senior Staff Attorney Chessie Thacher. "We recognize that this closure has been asserted in response to the recent civil unrest and involvement of law enforcement at Cal Poly Humboldt, but it is precisely in these moments that reporting by a free press is essential. We urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to lift this campus-wide closure."

In the letter, the two attorneys go on to explain the law holds that complete bans on access to public spaces are only allowable when narrowly tailored, leaving alternatives, which they charge is the "opposite" of CPH's "24-hour ban on public access continuing day-to-day for days on end."

"Students, faculty and members of the public are not an evil to be guarded against or silenced," the attorneys wrote. "Keeping them away from campus while the academic year is still underway is disruptive and punitive to the entire school community."

Further, the attorneys argue the closure violates the university's own policy, which only applies in the event of an emergency or "unplanned event" that threatens the safety of people and property, but does not allow the university to close campus "on mere speculation about danger."

The two attorneys also argue that the process for allowing media access is "far too limited," concluding by them taking "this opportunity to respectfully remind the university that the press, including student journalists, are not the enemy."

Commencement Moved Off Campus, Decentralized

With campus closed indefinitely, the university announced May 3 that its May 11 commencement ceremonies would be moved off campus to the Blue Lake Casino, the Eureka Theater and the Eureka High School Auditorium, which will collectively host 17 separate ceremonies, organized by major.

"Facilities staff on campus typically spend a month or more preparing for commencement, and that has not been possible," the announcement states. "Those same staff have been responding to the campus emergency, and now they are focused on the extensive clean-up following the restoration of order to campus. There is no way, at this point, to get the campus ready to host graduates and thousands of guests."

Faculty/Staff Call for President's Termination

A group of more than 300 members of CPH's staff and faculty penned a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, California State University Chancellor Mildred Garcia and her board of trustees on April 29, demanding the "immediate removal and termination" of Jackson and his chief of staff Mark Johnson. Having not received a reply on May 3, they shared the letter with the press.

"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," states the letter, signed by professors across disciplines. "President Jackson and Chief of Staff Johnson's decision to deploy law enforcement against student demonstrators on April 22, 2024, resulted in direct physical harm to members of our campus community."

The letter goes on to criticize the administration's "persistent lack of transparency," referencing the faculty's "overwhelming" no-confidence vote in Jackson, which received 193 out of a possible 203 votes in support.

Post Sheds Light on Decision Making

Throughout the week of the occupation and in its aftermath, faculty, staff and community leaders have said they were unclear about who was making decisions on behalf of CPH's administration. A post on LinkdIn by Jenny Novak, a director of emergency management for the chancellor's office, that appeared briefly with a photo of her and local administrators before being taken down sheds some light on who may have been involved in deciding the university's response.

According to the post, Novak was brought into the role of Emergency Operations Committee (EOC) coordinator during days five through eight of the occupation.

"As the experiences of the past four days swirl in my mind, I want to document just a few of the things for which I am so very thankful," Novak wrote.

Novak then launches into a list that includes items ranging from her husband's willingness to hold things down at home while she was away to staff who helped her troubleshoot technical issues. But a couple of things are noteworthy about the post.

First, it mentions that Novak was in a video conference call with Newsom, the California Office of Emergency Services director, Garcia, CSU presidents and University of California chancellors on April 28, indicating the highest levels of state government were likely at least briefed on what was happening at CPH.

Second, the tone of the post is a marked contrast to the university's messaging surrounding the protests, which it repeatedly characterized as dangerous and lawless, posing imminent threats to student safety. For example, Novak notes that she was thankful for friends who helped her with a fantasy sports draft and another who met her in town for a beer on short notice, while also joking the EOC team had plans to "create 'jug of justice' challenge coins," a reference to the water jug a protester used to hit a police officer, video of which went briefly viral. At another point, she seems amused at hearing a state official explain the term "Oink Boink," which had come up in relation to the video.

Jewish Leaders 'Not Consulted'

In response to a joint statement North Coast state Assemblymember Jim Wood and state Sen. Mike McGuire issued following law enforcement's clearing of campus that implied the protests had crossed a line with "destruction of school property, vandalism and antisemitic hate speech," a group of local Jewish leaders pushed back on the characterization.

"Yes, there have been instances of antisemitism," wrote Rabbi Naomi Steinberg and Rabbi Bob Rottengberg, as well as Temple Beth El President Courtney Ladika, Vice President Caroline Connor, Board Secretary Ann Alter and Antisemitism Task Force member David Boyd. "Yes, there is important work to be done. But we do not find the protests themselves to be antisemitic and we reject it as justification for the police force used against protesters. This inappropriate justification is all the more problematic because it was done without any consultation with Jewish community leaders."

Further, the group wrote in the letter that Jewish community leaders had attempted to contact the university in early February in response to concerns of Jewish students, faculty and staff, including an incident in which a student was "viciously harassed."

"It took three months to get a one-hour meeting," the group wrote, adding by that time the situation had deteriorated. "We were surprised to read a recent press release in which the university stated they 'have been in touch with Jewish community leaders.' This is inaccurate. Now it appears our well-intentioned elected officials have been misled by the university."

The protests, the group wrote, demonstrated a lack of cultural sensitivity and an "indifference to alienation of Jewish students with opposing views," which could have been mitigated had the university not ignored offers of help from Jewish leaders.

"This must change," the group write. "At a long-awaited meeting on May 2 with the dean of students, it was agreed that vigorous, long-term effort is needed to educate the Cal Poly Humboldt community about and respond to antisemitism. Crimes and discrimination must be taken seriously, and spurious charges of antisemitism must be scrupulously avoided."

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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