Amid Gaza protests, 'hateful graffiti,' Cal Poly Humboldt closes campus through weekend

Pro-Palestinian protesters hold up signs while occupying a building on the campus of California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, in Arcata, Calif., Monday, April 22, 2024. Students at the university used furniture, tents, chains and zip ties to block entrances to an academic and administrative building on Monday. University officials closed the campus through Wednesday. (Andrew Goff/Lost Coast Outpost via AP )
Pro-Palestinian protesters occupy a building Monday on the campus of Cal Poly Humboldt. Protesters continue to occupy Siemens Hall and another building. (Andrew Goff / Lost Coast Outpost )

Cal Poly Humboldt will remain closed through the weekend, with classwork continuing remotely as the Northern California university struggles with Gaza protests and what it calls "hateful graffiti" on campus.

Administrators at the public university in Arcata are weighing whether to keep the campus closed beyond then as protesters occupy Siemens Hall, an academic and administration building, and another building.

"Unidentified non-students with unknown intentions" are occupying Siemens Hall, the university said, which creates an "unpredictable environment."

Campus administrators said there are also reports that protesters broke into the president's office and accessed sensitive materials.

Read more: LAPD arrests 93 people at USC amid Israel-Hamas war protests

The university said there is a risk of other buildings being occupied, as protesters have "shown a willingness to enter unlocked buildings and either lock themselves in or steal equipment," and the occupation has a "negative impact" on other students who are trying to complete classwork in the last weeks of the semester.

Officials said "hateful graffiti" also has been painted on university property in recent days, citing at least two areas that have been "tagged with language that is harmful to the Jewish community." Administrators estimate damage to the campus to be "in the millions."

"The University condemns in the strongest terms all forms of hatred, bigotry, and violence," campus officials said a statement. "Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, hatred, and bigotry in all forms have no place at Cal Poly Humboldt. The University is actively offering support to all students and has been in touch with local Jewish community leaders."

When pressed for more details on the graffiti, the university did not respond.

Political science major Gerardo Hernandez said he saw pro-Palestinian tagging, such as "Free Gaza" and "River to Sea" — a slogan that the American Jewish Committee says is antisemitic — on Siemens Hall. He also saw a sprinkling of some anti-police messaging throughout the campus.

The Anti-Defamation League says on its website that "From the river to the sea" is antisemitic because it calls for dismantling Israel and removing Jews "from their ancestral homeland" to create a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. "Usage of this phrase has the effect of making members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel unsafe and ostracized," the group says.

The junior said he doesn't consider any of the phrases that he's seen around the university to be "anti-Jewish."

"I'm in solidarity with my classmates and commend their decision to have a nonviolent protest," Hernandez said. "They want their voices to be heard by creating forms of resistance in order for Cal Poly Humboldt to divest from Israeli organizations that are complicit in the ongoing conflict happening to Palestinians in Gaza."

On Monday night, three students were arrested after demonstrators set up tents inside Siemens Hall and clashed with law enforcement officers wearing helmets and riot shields who descended on campus.

Transfer student Christina, who asked that her last name not be used for fear of punishment from the school, said she exited an art class that night after 7:30 to find "50 police cars and a helicopter."

"I was immediately presented with the scene and thought there was a shooter," said Christina, who added that she bumped into a couple of students who were injured during the protest. The art major said she hung around for a while until she received an email from the school that said the campus was closed.

Christina said she ran back to her class studio to finish a ceramics project, not knowing when she would have access to it again.

"I put final touches on it when students came in warning that we were considered to be trespassing because we were still on campus," she said.

With the campus shuttered, Christina can't access supplies and projects she had planned to work on over the weekend. She said any further restrictions to the campus beyond Sunday would delay final projects.

The semester wraps up May 11.

Christina said she's been waiting for the university to offer "compensation for time lost."

"In any other exchange or service or goods situation, I would expect compensation for not receiving a service that I paid for," she said, adding that switching to online classes was not practical for art students who spend hours working in studios.

Senior Zachary Meyer said he supports the on-campus protests and counted himself among those who “stand with the people of Gaza.” He chided the administration's so-called safety concerns that led it to close the campus, which he called “disgraceful.”

Meyer, who is slated to graduate next month, described protesters as peaceful, particularly at a faculty teach-in held Wednesday.

The economics and environmental studies major called Israel’s action in Gaza “a genocide and ecocide” and said, “Environmental action can only happen when our most vulnerable are liberated.”

Meyer, president of the school's Environmental Studies club, said he also understands the disappointment surrounding the temporary move to remote learning.

“There are certainly some students on campus who are rightfully annoyed and upset about not getting what they’re paying for, and student workers are upset about basically being furloughed,” he said. “But it was the [administration's] decision to close down the campus."

He added that "anger, emotions and frustration should be thrown that way.”

School officials said employees who can work remotely will continue to do so and added that supervisors would be in contact with workers. A school spokesperson added late Thursday evening that the president authorized administrative pay for some employees who were scheduled to work and either didn't have access to the campus or are unable to telecommunicate.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.