An array of signage from the aftermath of the 24 April protests at California State Polytechnic University at Humboldt
An array of signage from the aftermath of the 24 April protests at California State Polytechnic University at Humboldt. Credit: Tabitha

The students on the frontlines of the pro-Palestine encampments

From sunny West Coast colleges to the revered Ivy League institutions of the East Coast to small midwestern liberal arts conservatories, university students across the United States have been engaging in pro-Palestinian protests on their college campuses. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and tasers are not new methods of silence used on protestors by policing groups or counter-protestors, especially in recent years. One new change, however, is the space where the protests are being held. Since the events of 7th October, 2023, the grassy quads at educational centres, ranging from Ivy League institutions to small-town community colleges, have been engulfed in multicoloured tents, riddled with handheld Palestine flags lodged into the earth, and are being occupied by students of all backgrounds clad in keffiyehs and face masks.

In a time where the internet is utilised (if not necessary) in circulating information about and effectuating forms of resistance such as a sit-in or protest, social media has assisted in spreading the cause from school to school, uniting college students and other attending individuals to stand up for what they believe in. 

I spoke with three students at American universities who are aiding the protest, each in their own ways. At these universities, where most students are actively paying tuition to attend, those participating in peaceful protests are met with brutal police activity, resulting in arrests, academic suspension, and public doxxing. Because of this as well as the possibility of receiving threats, the names of the students have been changed.

California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt — Arcata, California: Matthew, third year, science major

Tallulah Hawley: In the first few days of the protests at Humboldt, what did the campus look like?

Matthew: “There were large fluctuations of people throughout the protest, but I would estimate there were at least 300 people there during the daytime. I saw students making art and music, upholding their civic responsibilities and building community. There were vigils, art displays, a music show, and impromptu lectures.”

TH: When Siemens Hall became occupied, many more students began to take part. How did you assist in the protests? 

M: “I just so happened to be in the Quad when they first went into Siemens Hall. My house is only a skip, hop, and a jump away. I assisted the protestors in what way I could, gave them some cardboard for signs, went around and emptied the trash bins, let them use my kitchen and shower, et cetera. I am a politically active member of the community, and while I didn’t organise the protest, I did what I could to help once it started.”

⁠TH: I saw that Associate Dean of Students Molly Kresl sent out emails placing students on academic suspension. Has that happened to you or any of your acquaintances? How has that changed their daily life while still in school?

M: “I know one person who was suspended, they had to leave their dorm and is now couch surfing. Besides that case, the rest of campus is closed — you will get arrested for just walking onto campus. Effectively everyone is suspended from campus, whether or not a notice was received.”

TH: On Twitter, a video was circulated of police in riot gear clashing with students. What does the police presence look like?

⁠M: “I know a handful of people who were arrested. Fortunately, everyone got bailed out the next day. One of the professors went on a hunger strike while the students were still in jail. A bunch of people went to get all-you-can-eat Chinese food after they got released. I am unsure of what further retribution the university’s administration is planning for those students arrested, if any.

⁠Police now barricade every major entrance. It feels genuinely dystopian walking past campus. I think it requires committing doublethink to think freedom of expression is still alive in this country after watching the ways that law enforcement has been used in the last couple of days.”

TH: Could you describe the atmosphere at Humboldt today?

⁠M: “It’s tense, there is a lot of anxiety in the air, but the sun is out. Most people are just focusing on their finals this week so far as I can tell. I’m probably going to spend any extra time I have this week in the garden.”

California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt — Arcata, California: Tabitha, third year, wildlife studies major

Tallulah Hawley: When did you arrive at the protests, and what was going on?

Tabitha: “The first few days of the protest were intense. I arrived the night that the police had violently attacked a protestor, about an hour afterwards. I will say that the crowd continued to grow in relation to the police presence — around 200 people at the height. 

The police started pushing up onto the protestors, who for their own safety, had barricaded themselves into a building. One officer grabbed a student, and to prevent their own arrest, the student smacked the officer, fully dressed in riot gear, with an empty five-gallon jug for water. As a result, the officer used their baton to crack the student upside the head. There was no intent for violence on the part of protest organisers, there was a focus on the creation of community. An attempt to maintain student solidarity, despite the university’s continued efforts to break that. 

There was no intent for violence on the part of protest organisers, there was a focus on the creation of community.

Tabitha
Chalk drawn onto the side of Siemens Hall, where protestors at Cal Poly Humboldt occupied the building. Credit: Matthew

The entire purpose of this protest was to be peaceful, but when the campus chooses to escalate by bringing in riot teams, closing campus and blaming the students for said closure, people are upset. No one wants to see their community being oppressed by the police. 

On the second day, there were around 100 people in the quad, with tents set up and people playing music and blowing bubbles. The chalk messages had quadrupled, with one section of the quad filled with names of Palestinians who lost their lives.”

TH: How have you assisted in the protests yourself?

M: “I attended protests and provided food and chalk. My main role was to act as another set of eyes with the hope being that with more people, there’s less of a chance of police brutality.”

TH: Have any of your friends been suspended? What has been their response to the school?

M: “One of my friends [is in my same] major and was suspended on the third day of the occupation of the quad. They knew that by remaining on campus after receiving that suspension, they would be risking expulsion. I gathered from them that there were around 20 or so students who had been suspended, at that time, and they were working on a group legal case against the school.”

TH: How has the prevalence of law enforcement shifted the emotions of the last few weeks of the school year?

M: “The police presence on campus is immense, with police barricades and police cars being posted at the entrances to the campus. I find it incredibly frustrating, it affects the feeling of community on campus. I feel on edge. When walking one of my friends who is housed on campus over the weekend, I stopped at the library circle, where some of the protests had taken place, to snap photos of the signage and police presence. 

Without even entering campus, the three police cars posted up at the entrance turned on their lights. It’s a fear tactic. the local police aren’t even willing to carry out these acts of violence and terror on their own community, instead, they call in reinforcements from Redding and other [nearby] counties to come in and support them. They also have continuously attempted to engage in conversations with me, telling me that they think that “the only way to effectively protest is to do it on a military base”, attempting to break solidarity amongst students.” 

TH: Could you describe the atmosphere at Humboldt today?

M: “Tired and exhausted. I’m also ashamed to have seen some students actively going into the Quad to take photos of protestors, who had their masks off to eat their food, so that way they could send them to the school and police. I don’t understand why people immediately believe the university’s narrative, especially when it has been inconsistent and deliberate in its use of language. There’s still a police presence. There’s uncertainty in the air — what will the future of Cal Poly Humboldt look like? Because it has been made clear that the students and faculty have no say in it.”

University of Texas at Austin — Austin, Texas: Rue, fourth year, government and Middle Eastern studies double major

Tallulah Hawley: What drew you to this cause?

Rue: “I’m Middle Eastern and I do Middle Eastern studies. So just on a conceptual level, I’m deeply connected to the issue in the history. I think it’s just something I’ve always cared about. I’ve just always, I guess growing up in Texas is part of it. Because I know there’s a culture everywhere in the world honestly of not really caring about Palestine, just kind of blanket dismissing it. I feel like that’s been kind of a global theme. But especially in conservative, evangelical areas of the South. That kind of ideology is really deeply entrenched here. So, even though Palestine is always something I’ve cared about, it’s never really been something that I feel like I’ve had many opportunities to be vocal about. I’ve always been involved with protest, and there never was really an avenue or a space to kind of have a dialogue about Palestine until college. I feel. And then I’ve been pretty. I’ve been semi-involved, in and out, with Palestinian protests at UT and throughout college.”

TH: I feel like with October 7th and all that the world saw unfold, I saw a lot of people who had no idea that a 100-year cycle of colonialism has been occurring in Palestine, not even including this isolated incident.

R: “In Middle Eastern Studies classes, there are people who, even now, have a really poor understanding of the issue to be real.”

TH: That’s interesting. So even in classes that relate to that topic of study.

R: “Yeah, with any issue that’s this personal for people, they become very enshrined in their own little beliefs about it. There’s so little agreement about the truth of the scenario. I keep wanting to have conversations about Palestine, and then the conversations turn into October 7th. And it’s really hard to find a common ground and create good dialogue when you’re kind of butting heads on what the issue even is.”

It’s really hard to find a common ground and create good dialogue when you’re kind of butting heads on what the issue even is. 

Rue

TH: How do you feel about the current dialogue, when people seem to pay attention to just that solitary moment?

R: “The discourse and the conversation are just very narrow right now. I think we want to talk about actually making the world a better place. We need to expand that conversation and talk about why things like that happen and why these conversations are even necessary in the first place, and how we can prevent this from happening again and again, in other places as well. 

There’s this sentiment among the counter-protestors that everybody who’s there for Palestine is somehow in support of October 7, those are the things is people coming up to us and saying, “release the hostages” or “what you did on October 7?” I think they fail to understand that we’re trying to have a conversation about how we prevent things like this from happening. How do we prevent this conflict from continuing to bubble over like this? How do we find peace? Right here? Not, I’m not here because I love violence. It’s an anti-war protest.”

TH: The first few days of the protests, what did it look like on campus?

R: “Well, UT is, I think, kind of a unique scenario, because we’ve never had tents up for more than 15 minutes. Mass arrests started before the protests had even really started. So it immediately bubbled over. 

What happened is that PSC, our Palestine Solidarity Committee, put out a [social media] post the day before, on April 23, saying that we’re going to occupy the lawn from 1 to 7 pm. They had posted a schedule with teachings, art workshops, 

But they use the language ‘occupy the lawn’, even though it said 1 to 7 pm, there was no intention to bring tents, no intention to stay overnight, no intention to establish a permanent encampment. But they made the post. Before anyone had even sat on the lawn, before any teaching had happened, before any flag had been put up or any sign, there were about 60 arrests. 

So the first day was insane, because nobody was expecting that. Personally, I was there. It was a walkout from class. And then we were just going to go sit on the lawn until the evening. So I was carrying my backpack. I had a Yerba Mate in my hand, right? The line of state troopers marched in with batons, and horses, and motorcycles, and guns and all that. It was like a switch flipped really, really fast. Where it went from literally an Instagram post. And we’re standing and gathering on campus, to all of a sudden there’s like 75 state troopers surrounding us right now. So the first day was a conflict, there wasn’t even a protest before the conflict. It was kind of just a conflict. 

And then things settled a little bit from there. So after that first day, before we even sat on the lawn, they arrested 60 people, but we pushed them off the lawn, and then people ended up sitting on the lawn. Since then, it’s just been teachings every day, no tents or anything, but people have been sitting on the lawn for as long as many hours as possible. That’s mostly what it’s looked like, except for the protest a couple of days ago.”

TH: What was the protest a few days ago, what happened? How was that different?

R: “The protest a few days ago was different because that was when they set up tents for 15 minutes. On the 29th [of April], a group of staff had a vigil for scholasticide and Palestine. Staff left, and then immediately after protestors set up four tents, and within 10 minutes, state troopers were there. Then another 80 arrests happened on that day, and they did pepper spray, they did flashbangs.” 

TH: Do you know anyone who was arrested? How did that affect them?

R: “It’s been horrible. These jails, they are so bad. They’re not receiving adequate care. They were not receiving food or water or medical attention. Black and brown students were disproportionately treated worse. 

UT has been very hostile to its own students. First of all, they accused us of bringing weapons to the protest, and the [Texas District Attorney] had to step in and say “No, they didn’t.” It has since come out that one person had a gun in his getting a weapons charge. But again, you’re allowed to have guns on campus at UT. So that’s not particularly crazy. So they’re lying about that. 

The [next day after the initial protest, admin] started handing out flyers to people on the lawn, and saying that if you had been arrested, you were no longer allowed on campus. Except at this point, when they were handing out the flyers, all of the charges had already been dropped. So there were no charges against anyone. They were saying ‘If you’ve been arrested, regardless of if the charges have been dropped, you’re not allowed to come to campus.’ By the end of the day, that rule ended up changing, because how are they going to enforce that? But that was the immediate reaction that students who had been arrested were met with and it was ‘we don’t want you here anymore’.”

University of Texas at Austin’s main campus as of the protests. Credit: Rue

TH: Was there a similar case with academic probation or suspension?

R: “I guess the PSC organisation had an interim suspension. As far as I’m aware, there are no individual conduct cases. But people are very concerned about it, because Greg Abbott [governor of Texas] tweeted, calling for everybody’s expulsion, and Jay Hartzell, our university president, is [close with Abbott] so people feel that that might be coming, even if it hasn’t happened yet.”

TH: Expulsion?

R: “Yeah, I sincerely sincerely hope not. It hasn’t happened yet, so I think that’s an amazing sign. If they wanted it already, they probably could have but, I think when the governor is asking for students to be expelled, and the president works with the governor, it’s concerning.”

TH: Do you have any reaction to the statement from UT?

R: “If people were doing that, you would have seen it. The whole of the protests have been so well documented from so many angles, have you seen a slashed tyre? If someone was throwing horse excrement at cops? I’m pretty sure that a video of that would have made the round, right?

I think something that’s been bothering me is that people keep conflating breaking laws with being violent. It doesn’t justify the kind of response that they receive. If school administrators want to have beef with their students for putting up a tent on campus and breaking school rules, and it’s technically a misdemeanour, then fine, you can have an issue with that. But this is not the kind of response you would ever see for breaking a law like that. These are not violent protestors. People keep acting like because camping laws are being broken, that these are somehow violent protests. That’s not violent. It’s not violent to set up a tent, even if it’s against the law. And it doesn’t make sense to tear gas students who aren’t being violent. Even if they’re in a tent.” 

TH: Who do you see present at these protests?

R: “It’s a mix. It’s a lot of students, though, it’s mostly students in my experience. My experience with the protests in general, because every official UT thing will tell you that it is a majority non-students, but from personal experience, that’s not true. It’s mostly students. The people who aren’t students are, for in large part, alumni or someone who just has a connection, like my boyfriend is going to come to the protests today. He’s not a student, but, he’s 22. 

There’s this narrative that the whole situation on campus is some sort of conflict between outside groups, but really, my experience is that protestors are mostly students and counter-protestors are mostly students.”

TH: How is the atmosphere at like campus today? With students talking or clashing with other students and then after that ending up in the same class together? How has it shifted? 

R: “I think campus has been very tense on the Palestine issue for months. UT loves to brag that they hold the largest pro-Israel event on any college campus in North America. It’s called the Israel Block Party. They hold it every year, so Israel is a pretty constant issue on UT campus. Always because Hillel has a super outsized presence in terms of their relationship with UT admin and the kind of events that they hold, like the Israel Block Party, and then things have been very tense because there’s been hate crimes. Someone spray painted ‘free Palestine’ on the side of Hillel. I’m not exactly sure what they wrote, but it was after October 7th. There might have been another incident like that after but the counter-protestors have been really targeting Palestinians on campus and Muslims on campus, and UT hasn’t done anything about it. So there’s been an insane amount of tension. 

There was a PSC meeting where IDF members stormed in and called everyone terrorists and said “I’m gonna go kill you.” Someone actually got stabbed right outside my window, they were coming home from a protest. Then, basically on campus, a Muslim girl got attacked, coming home from the mosque. There’s been a series of violent incidents, and UT has only addressed the anti-Semitic incidents, and they have not addressed the Islamophobic incidents. So a lot of students feel very hurt by that. There’s been a lot of tension surrounding that, especially after the Israel Block Party, because that always kind of heightens tensions anyway. But then, since the liberated zone [where students protest on campus] kicked off, I think the atmosphere on campus has been much more animosity towards UT administration, than even the issue of Palestine.

Obviously, the people who are on the lawn are there for Palestine still. With people who are apathetic in general or who were not likely to get involved on either side, regardless, feelings on campus are very, very tense and very heated, but, mostly at UT admin and at the police presence. So people are just very upset about the state troopers and about the pepper spray and the arrests, so UT made it a lot worse, to be quite frank with you.”

TH: How have social media and the spreading of videos helped to bring awareness?

R: “I do Middle Eastern studies, so I think a lot about movements in the Middle East and how movements like the pro-Palestinian movement have been getting traction. I feel like the importance of social media in those events has been extraordinary and a huge boom that fundamentally affects the way Middle Eastern people are able to organise and connect with each other, and I think that applies to us here too. It makes me think of Arab Spring, how the Egyptian Revolution really began off of one Facebook post, just a call to action that people answered. I feel similar veins here even in the language that people use when they start the encampments, like ‘we’ve heard the call’. I think this whole movement has been shockingly interconnected.

I have been connecting with people at other encampments and at other schools asking, like at UT we want to get an event set up where we read the names of the dead, and we saw they did that at Michigan, so we just reached out to one of the organisers at Michigan, asking ‘what was your setup?’ and ‘how did you schedule that out?’ Even simple questions, where we are able to rely on each other, right now is really valuable.

Social media is so, so incredible bc it allows you to disseminate information that you otherwise would not be able to get out into the world. Some of the videos of police brutality that are happening on campus right now — you’re not seeing that on CNN, you’re seeing that on Twitter. Some of the conversations about Palestine that have been happening — you’re not seeing on CNN you’re seeing on Twitter and you’re seeing in the encampments. It allows us to have conversations we wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have. It also allows people to mobilise in ways that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to. 

The videos of police brutality that are happening on campus right now — you’re not seeing that on CNN, you’re seeing that on Twitter.

Rue

Something that I found really incredible is seeing the Columbia encampments’ [social media] posts where they’ll be able to say “We’ve gotten word a raid is coming! Everybody come out now!” And people do, they come out and defend the encampment. We’ve seen that over and over again, that a call on social media will come out, like, “We need bodies, come defend the encampment!” and people will show up! Even though they know that means being subjected to violence, suspension, expulsion, eviction, all of the things that that entails. I don’t think that that would be possible without social media.

It is easier to maintain online protest spaces and online networks of communication and build online networks of trust bc things are more anonymised, but when you’re actually in the space, it takes a much different kind of organising and requires different things of you that social media organising doesn’t necessarily require of you.”