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Portland State University closed as demonstrators take over school library

Hundreds of people attend a pro-Palestinian protest on Portland State University's campus on Monday, April 29, 2024.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Hundreds of people attend a pro-Palestinian protest on Portland State University's campus on Monday, April 29, 2024.

Portland State University leaders and city officials have sent a message to protesters who took over a campus library Monday night: Leave now or face possible criminal charges.

The university had closed its campus Tuesday, but top leaders continued to meet throughout the day to discuss next steps for the occupied Branford Price Millar Library. The university said it planned to close its campus Wednesday as well.

The occupation followed days of smaller anti-war demonstrations on the campus connected with protests around the country opposing the war in Gaza. Throughout Sunday and Monday, pro-Palestinian rights protesters barricaded off an entrance to the library using orange construction fencing, garbage cans and other debris. They also erected signs declaring the library a “liberated zone.”

By Tuesday afternoon, PSU President Ann Cudd sent a message to university staff and students, imploring people involved in the demonstration to move out of the building before police forcibly remove them.

“I urge anyone in the campus community who is able to communicate with friends, family or colleagues inside the Library, to encourage them to leave,” Cudd wrote. “We are trying our best to keep everyone safe while ending this unlawful occupation of our library.”

The message echoed similar pleas Cudd issued when she gathered late Monday night with Portland officials, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, Police Chief Bob Day and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

“Universities are set up with the understanding that people go there to explore the competition of ideas, and that’s a noble purpose,” Wheeler said at the press conference. “But when people engage in criminal destruction and acts of violence, that is no longer the debate of ideas. And that is no longer peaceful protest. That is criminal activity.”

Schmidt said his office planned to prosecute people who were arrested for the occupation.

“I expect that felony charges could be filed depending on what evidence we gather, including burglary and felony, criminal mischief along with other potential misdemeanors,” Schmidt said.

Day estimated that at least 50 people were inside the library Monday night. He did not give a timeline on when they might forcibly remove people, though the Portland leaders called on students and others to voluntarily vacate the building.

“If you’re in the library right now, it would be a good time to leave and go home and continue this conversation in a civil manner,” Schmidt said.

Day said Portland police were working with campus law enforcement to establish a plan to address the protest, if demonstrators refuse to vacate the library. By Tuesday afternoon, a Portland police spokesperson said they were still working with the university to craft that plan, and they had yet to give protesters a deadline to leave if they wanted to avoid arrest.

PSU’s Board Chair Ben Berry shared a different perspective after a Tuesday board meeting.

“The 11 o’clock news conference last night was the deadline,” Berry said. “Anyone who’s in the building are considered trespassing. We’ve not talked about anything like amnesty. The goal is really to get the people out of the building.”

Berry said he’s participated in civil rights and anti-war protests in the past, and understands what drives students to demonstrate. But when protesters begin destroying property and intimidating others, he said, “people are crossing the line.”

Earlier Tuesday, some demonstrators gathered outside of the library, which protesters have covered with anti-war slogans and other statements in paint.

“Scrawled on the wall over there is a very simple phrase, ‘Stop Murdering Children,’” said one protester, who did not give their name. “I would ask everyone ... ‘Which side of history do you want to be on?’”

Several people stopped by the building to drop off food and supplies to demonstrators inside.

“These are kids that are risking graduation, maybe even getting jobs later on in an already tough economy because they believe in humanity,” said one woman, who donated water and first aid kits to the group. “This is just my way to take care of kids as a mom, because I also believe in humanity.”

This is one of the longest protests Portland has seen since the city’s expansive racial justice demonstrations made national headlines in 2020 and 2021.

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who is running for mayor, said she believes Portland police will use lessons from the 2020 racial justice protests to inform their approach — for the better.

“I expect them to carry out their duties with the utmost respect, especially in regard to freedom of speech and assembly, but also that violence and property damage will not be tolerated,” Rubio said in a statement sent to OPB.

Most Portland City Council members are in Washington, D.C., for legislative meetings, and weren’t able to comment on the protest.

Encampments at other Northwest universities, including Reed College, Lewis & Clark, University of Oregon and University of Washington, also grew on Monday. Students at Columbia University in New York occupied a campus building there as well in the early hours Tuesday morning.

Across the country, students and others participating in the protests have called on universities to cut all ties with Israel and weapon makers over the war in Gaza, which has left tens of thousands of civilians dead. On Friday, Portland State University announced it would pause its philanthropic relationship with Boeing, with a plan to reassess that tie in May. Protesters have said PSU officials should do more, including calling for a ceasefire in the conflict.

Troy Brynelson
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