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Interview: Cal Poly Humboldt activists speak about their struggle for Palestine

By staff

Pro-Palestine students stage occupation at Cal Poly Humboldt.  | Staff/Fight Back! News

Fight Back! recently interviewed Fern McBride and Rick Toledo. Both are pro-Palestine activists and SDS members that played important roles in supporting the occupation and the historic resistance at Cal Poly Humboldt, in Arcata, California. What started as sit-on on April 22 escalated into outrageous repression that was, however, met with determined resistance. On May 28, some of the activists had their first court appearance.

Fight Back!: Could you say a few words about how the occupation at Cal Poly Humboldt came about?

Rick Toledo: Due to the excessive violence and genocide committed by Israel against Palestinians, the students at Cal Poly Humboldt decided that they needed to take action. After seeing many encampments spreading all over the nation an emergency meeting was called to plan an action of our own. People from multiple organizations and unaffiliated students gathered to come up with a plan. During the meeting it was decided that a sit-in within the administration building would be the best course of action, and this was the original plan.

However, once the administration reacted to the peaceful sit-in with excessive police violence, the action changed. Protesters worked to defend each other and prevent the police from ending the sit-in while the greater community gathered in support and encircled the police.

The faculty, along with the California Faculty Association, fought for us behind the scenes and helped urge admin to call off the police. After the initial fight many students experienced police brutality and the action became more militant in response to this.

Fern McBride: Students at Cal Poly Humboldt felt it necessary to escalate by standing in solidarity with Palestinians, creating visibility in our community and demanding our university disclose and divest any financial or educational ties with the Zionist government of Israel.

To accomplish this, a group of students organized a sit-in of the university’s main administrative building, Siemens Hall, a form of protest historically allowed and supported by the school.

In response to the peaceful sit-in, where students sang songs, played games, created art, and hoped to host a Passover celebration, the university evacuated the building and created an atmosphere of fear by calling in the police. When the police arrived, they attempted to push their way into the building and became violent with protesters. To protect themselves, protesters began erecting barriers with whatever they could find inside and outside the building.

After police left, students, faculty and community members rallied around those inside Siemens Hall and established an encampment outside to support those students and protect them from further police violence.

Fight Back!: What were some of the big events that took place during the occupation?

McBride: The week-long occupation was full of fun and love despite the hostility from the university administration. The encampment hosted a teach-in with faculty lecturers, multiple concerts, a Seder celebration, and other small events. Protesters were encouraged to engage the community with opportunities to learn, share space, create art, and have constructive dialogue. By responding with violence and militarized police, the administration squandered an immense learning opportunity for their students. Instead, student protesters took it upon themselves, with the support of sympathetic community members and faculty, to create a space which encouraged creativity, relationship building, and hands on learning.

Toledo: Even though there was a militant defensive response in the form erecting barricades, creating security teams, and look-outs, overall, the attitude on the ground was full of love and respect. There was a strong sense of community and free food, medical help, and other services were provided to all students and community members that stopped by. Teach-ins were hosted to help educate people on what is happening in Palestine, with U.S. imperialism globally, and more. Faculty stopped in and joined in on many occasions. Many students reported feeling safer within the occupation than they had in our normal society. This all speaks to the kind-hearted and empathetic nature of the protesters. This action was initiated out of a deep love for our fellow people and in solidarity with Palestinians, and all oppressed peoples.

Fight Back!: Could you say something about the repression that is taking place against students and community members who participated?

McBride: The repression of speech and free expression by Cal Poly Humboldt, the CSU system, and the police has been dumbfounding. Punishing students and community members with severe academic and legal repercussions for actions which resulted from escalation on the part of school administrators is hypocrisy at its finest. Students should be encouraged to speak their minds, radically express themselves, and act as a catalyst for change.

The fact that others and I have had our futures threatened over our willingness to speak out against the genocide of Palestinians shows exactly where our universities and institutions of power stand on this issue. It is cleat that the powers that be are willing to weaponize any means at their disposal, including violence, to silence, suppress, and traumatize those who appose the United States’ war profiteering and their support for the Zionist government of Israel.

Toledo: The administration suspended students without any evidence or warning, and many lost their jobs as a result. SDS has been providing financial assistance to these students who would otherwise be housing insecure at this time. We are doing everything we can to provide as much support as possible and combat the harm inflicted by the administration.

The administration also put out false narratives where they called the protesters criminals and painted a bleak picture of the occupation. They emphasized property damage over human lives and made up extravagant numbers in damages that do not match the reality of the situation at all. They had an army of police occupy and lock down our campus; students felt unsafe just going to the dining halls because they were full of armed officers.

Students who were simply leaving their dorms were arrested by police, even if they were not associated with the occupation at all. One journalist from ABC 23 was even detained by them for simply doing her job. The administration has also recently sent out a vague email warning of “heightened security on campus.” We are still not sure what this entails and, while they claim that it has nothing to do with the occupation, we would argue that the timing clearly contradicts this claim.

Finally, we know that as of May 28, the charges were sent by campus police to District Attorney Stacey Eads. Rather than revoking the suspensions and charges they have chosen to persecute these students for standing against genocide, history will not forget, nor forgive these injustices.

Fight Back!: What is being done to push back against the repression?

Toledo: Legal teams have been organized to deal with the suspensions and the arrests. Palestine Legal has been leading the charge with the suspended students and pushing back against the administration and their claims. Attorney Rachel Lederman is leading a team out of San Fransisco that is defending the arrestees and both legal teams are collaborating with one another.

Meanwhile, SDS and Humboldt for Palestine have been providing supportive care. SDS has provided financial assistance and organized supportive campaigns to help fight for the protesters. We have worked closely with Humboldt for Palestine and other organizations like the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, and the National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression to launch a national call/email/petition campaign to urge the district attorney to drop the charges. SDS and Humboldt for Palestine held a supportive rally during the arraignment to show the DA that the community is not going to let them charge these innocent students, community members and faculty.

McBride: Students and community members continue to organize against the repression we are facing, but most importantly we continue creating visibility for Palestine. A ‘Free Palestine Graduation’ outside our county courthouse was hosted during graduation weekend, in which each graduate dedicated their degree to a child martyr. Protests continue to be held within the community, events are being organized to decompress and speak about what happened during the occupation, and groups of protesters continue to advocate for a ceasefire and divestment in their own ways.

The administration thought that by raiding our encampment they could weaken and scare us, but they have only made us stronger and more impassioned. This same trend can be seen across the country and the world at hundreds of student encampments. Every time they try to push us down, we rise up even higher and we will continue to do so until Palestine is free from the violence and oppression of Israeli occupation.

Fight Back!: How can the student movement assist the struggle to end Israeli apartheid?

Toledo: The student movement can continue educate, agitate, and organize for Palestine. Building broader coalition and more united actions across the country will help us to put more strain on those in power and to successfully get our campuses to disclose ties with and divest from Israel. It’s up to us to continue to educate people on the truths of the settler-colonial government known as “Israel” and on the injustices that Palestinians have faced since the Nakba.

Many of our universities have deals with Israel and some even have military contracts with them through corporations like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. However, for us to truly succeed in our goals it is imperative that we not only organize on our campuses but that we organize with the greater community as well and continue to struggle against these injustices both on and off campus.

This is the greatest genocide that we have seen since the holocaust, we must continue to escalate for Gaza, Rafah, and all of the Palestinian people, none of us are free, until Palestine is free!

McBride: People have criticized the occupation at Cal Poly Humboldt, saying that due to the small size of our isolated school we can make no impact, but that cannot be farther from the truth. We have heard from student organizers at much larger universities that our actions and resilience have inspired them to escalate further for Palestine. We have even received pictures of children in Gaza thanking Cal Poly Humboldt for our solidarity.

We are a very tiny piece of this resistance movement, and the real resistance is coming from the people of Palestine who face the horrors of genocide every day, so the least we can do it stand with them and leverage our privilege in any way possible.

A few years ago, I would have never imagined the UN International Court would be attempting to issue warrants for the arrest of top Israeli officials, but that has become a reality. This is partially due to the pressure being applied to systems of power at campuses across the globe. We are only a small part of the mosaic of resistance to free Palestine, but every small piece is important, and I can’t imagine not being a part of it.

Fern McBride and Rick Toledo are members of Students for Democratic Society (SDS) at Cal Poly Humboldt.

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