As protesters trashed Cal State L.A. center, questions about why police were not called in

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 13: Barricades remain around the student services building at California State University, Los Angeles in Los Angeles, CA on Thursday, June 13, 2024. The building was taken over Wednesday afternoon trapping people inside. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Barricades remained around the student services building at Cal State Los Angeles on Thursday. The building was taken over Wednesday afternoon. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

As pro-Palestinian protesters took over and barricaded the Cal State Los Angeles student services building Wednesday night, university police issued a mutual aid call that brought officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and California Highway Patrol to the campus.

Although the officers were prepared to enter the building and clear out the protesters, top university officials never gave them approval to move in, according to two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the incident.

Around 9 p.m., The Times observed police staging in front of the university public safety station, a short distance from the student services building.

LAPD and CHP officers remained there before eventually leaving, said the two law enforcement sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. At some point in the night, protesters scrawled pro-Palestinian slogans all over the windows. A video from ABC7 showed a broken glass door, ransacked cubicles and people wheeling copy machines out of the building.

It remains unclear exactly why police did not take action.

On Friday, university spokesperson Erik Frost Hollins said the law enforcement sources were misinformed about the chain of events but would not elaborate, to avoid revealing tactical information.

University officials had instructed staff members who were in the eight-story building to shelter in place after 50 to 100 protesters entered about 4 p.m. Wednesday, according to Frost Hollins.

About 60 staffers remained inside for roughly two hours before security officers established a safe exit route. Many left, but about a dozen — including Cal State L.A. President Berenecea Johnson Eanes, whose office is in the building — voluntarily stayed behind.

Read more: After 'significant' vandalism overnight, Cal State L.A. president says encampment must end

Pro-Palestinian student groups wrote on social media around 5 p.m. that Eanes said she would negotiate with them. Later, they posted claims that she did not follow through.

Most of the protesters left voluntarily by 1 a.m. Thursday, university officials said. University police who entered that morning found only a handful of people still inside, the law enforcement sources said.

In a statement released Thursday, Eanes said that university officials had been "in ongoing formal and informal communication" with members of a pro-Palestinian encampment that had been on campus for more than a month.

"So long as the Encampment remained non-violent, I was committed that the university would continue to talk," she wrote.

She said the damage to the building would affect student services, including "admissions, records, accessible technology, basic needs, new student and family engagement, Dreamer resources, and educational opportunity programs.”

Those who participated in the destruction would be "held accountable," she wrote, adding: "The Encampment has crossed a line. Those in the Encampment must leave."

The pro-Palestinian groups said in a news release Thursday that Eanes “has refused to continue negotiations or make meaningful progress toward meeting the demands of the student body. Delaying negotiations past the end of the spring semester at a commuter campus shows clear bad faith and an attempt to wait out students instead of actively working to reach an agreement.”

The groups are asking, among other things, for the university to divest from defense companies, remove law enforcement from campus and make a statement supporting an immediate and permanent cease-fire in Gaza.

They emphasized that university administrators were free to leave the building after the takeover Wednesday night "whenever they desire with escorts, which has been repeatedly communicated both directly and on Instagram."

On Friday, on a mostly deserted campus, the student services building was cordoned off, with security guards milling around the front.

The encampment was the main hub of activity, with a perimeter sturdily constructed out of crates and construction netting, as well as pro-Palestinian signs that declared the area a “liberated zone” and asked to “drop tuition not bombs.”

A woman, who said she was a UCLA student and would not give her name, sat at a welcome tent outside the encampment. After Eanes’ declaration Thursday that the protesters had “crossed a line,” she said she didn’t know what was next for the group.

“We’re ready for anything,” she said.

She said she felt that Eanes had conflated those who committed the vandalism at the student center with the protesters at the encampment. She said they had no plans to disperse, despite the president's warning.

“We stay here until the president meets our demands,” she said, adding that Eanes had moved too slowly to negotiate with the group.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.