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Police Warned of ‘Violent Extremism’ From Pro-Palestinian Protesters Before Campus Raid

Documents obtained by The Appeal show law enforcement warning of a “strong possibility” of anti-police violence by student protesters at Cal Poly Humboldt ahead of a sweep that led to mass arrests.

Photo via RawPixel

In the days before an April raid on a pro-Palestinian encampment at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, local law enforcement officers developed an action plan to combat what they described as the “threat of domestic violent extremism and criminal behavior” supposedly presented by protesters.

Emails obtained by The Appeal show that the plan was part of broader discussions between multiple law enforcement agencies as they prepared to send hundreds of officers onto the Cal Poly Humboldt campus to dismantle the protest and conduct arrests. 

During the correspondence, police warned that protesters were likely to be violent, especially against law enforcement. In one conversation, the interim chief for the Cal Poly Humboldt police department requested that they be connected to a state anti-terrorism center.

The emails, obtained by public records request, shed light on law enforcement’s use of hyperbolic rhetoric to depict protesters who oppose Israel’s ongoing mass killing of Palestinians in Gaza as dangerous. 

The law enforcement response at Cal Poly Humboldt began with a widely publicized incident on April 22, when police confronted students after they entered an administration building called Siemens Hall to stage a “peaceful sit-in,” said Rick Toledo, an organizer with the group Humboldt Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As officers in riot gear attempted to enter the building to clear protesters, video shows students holding onto each other and chanting, “We are not afraid of you.” Desks and chairs are piled up between the officers and students. In a moment that has since gone viral, a protester strikes an officer’s helmet with an empty five-gallon water jug. The video shows several officers hitting demonstrators with batons, while another elbows at least one protester. 

Toledo criticized the university administration for being so quick to get law enforcement involved. 

“Instead of just opening that dialogue, the first thing they want to do is send in armed police against students,” he said.

Officers ultimately retreated, and while some students remained in Siemens Hall, a growing encampment formed on the quad, said Toledo. On April 25, faculty members overwhelmingly approved a resolution that condemned the administration for calling the police on the Siemens Hall protesters and demanded the resignations of university president Tom Jackson, Jr. and his chief of staff.

Over the next week, numerous law enforcement agencies collaborated on plans to sweep the encampment.

On April 25, the interim chief of police for the Cal Poly Humboldt Police Department emailed the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office to request that his “Intel Chief” be “connected formally” with the NCRIC, or Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, an anti-terrorism law enforcement center housed in the California governor’s office, which responds to “the greatest human-made threats and major hazards in the Federal Northern District of California.” Several people were copied on this email, including Cal Poly administrators and counsel for Cal Poly Humboldt.

On the evening of April 26, Ryan Derby, the Emergency Services Program Manager for the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, emailed the “Incident Action Plan” for the “Siemens Hall Occupation” to the sheriff and the interim chief of the Cal Poly police department for “review and approval.” Among the plan’s objectives is “eliminating the threat of domestic violent extremism and criminal behavior.” A separate action plan shared by Derby days later includes information on what to do in the event of a hostage situation. 

In another email, Derby said protesters would likely pose a physical threat to police officers. 

“Remaining demonstrators have shown a strong commitment to their pro-Palestinian and anti-law enforcement ideology and there is a strong possibility of violence against responding officers,” Derby warned on April 27.

In the same email, Derby requested 250 law enforcement officers to carry out the operations planned for April 29 and 30. Officers “should come equipped with crowd control gear consisting of a helmet with face shield, long baton, and flex cuffs,” he wrote. He advised officers to give a warning before using force “if practicable.” 

The next day, April 28, Derby emailed the interim chief of the Cal Poly Humboldt Police Department and a staff member with California ​Governor Gavin Newsom’s Office of Emergency Services, among others, to provide them with a “brief training detailing tactics utilized by violent protest groups.” Derby wrote that he had developed the training in 2020 and that the “tactics being used by the Cal Poly Occupiers are nearly identical.” Protests erupted in California and around the world in 2020 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. 

The training, titled “Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) used by Violent Opportunists,” claims people at protests are “deploying distinct and increasingly violent” tactics “long utilized by anarchists and other violent left-wing actors.” The document says these individuals have also given direction to “rioters” and pretended to be members of the press “to prevent removal of frontline individuals (‘human shields’), and to impede crowd dispersal efforts.”

The hostility toward demonstrators and depictions of them as violent contrast sharply with the behavior and goals of the protests, said Toledo. 

“These are students who were standing up against a genocide and trying to do something good, trying to do something that mattered in the face of all of this horror,” he told The Appeal. “For the admin and for the police to respond in such a way to them, it’s just truly disgusting.”

Toledo also took issue with the administration’s decision to close the campus in response to the encampment. 

“Students had also been arguing the entire time that campus should be opened up and that classes should not be canceled because they said, ‘We’re not violent, we’re not dangerous,’” said Toledo. “We want education to continue. It’s you all that are responding with violence.”

In an email to The Appeal after this story was published, an attorney for Humboldt County said some of the documents pertaining to “security procedures of a local police agency” were exempt from California public records laws and had been disclosed “inadvertently.” The attorney requested that they be destroyed.

In the early morning hours of April 30, police stormed the campus as protesters “were sitting on the quad, holding hands, singing, sometimes praying,” said Rouhollah Aghasaleh, an assistant professor at Cal Poly Humboldt’s School of Education. The officers were “fully armed with everything that I can imagine law enforcement or a militarized person could have.” 

Aghasaleh, who uses they/them pronouns, said they became involved with the protests after police attacked students at Siemens Hall on April 22. 

“I decided to stay with the students, just do the little I could to make sure they’re being safe and also their voice is being heard,” said Aghasaleh, who said they camped out on the quad for about six days and was arrested during the early morning raid on April 30. Aghasaleh said the university has temporarily suspended them, which means they are banned from campus and prohibited from speaking with students.

In the days before the raid, students had created a “beautiful, semi-autonomous space” on the quad, said Launa Wyrd, a community member who often visited the encampment.

“People were hosting teach-ins, they were cooking three meals a day for each other,” she said. “Professors were coming and teaching subjects.”

On the night of the raid, it looked like officers were “swarming from every side,” said Wyrd, who was arrested as police swept the quad. Wyrd told The Appeal that although an officer thanked her for not resisting, she was booked on a charge of resisting arrest, among other offenses.

Police arrested 32 people during the sweep, according to the university. Officers also detained and zip-tied a local reporter, who said in a subsequent interview that police told her they could detain her if she was on campus. The Humboldt County Sheriff later apologized to her at the jail before releasing her, she said. 

Toledo, from the Humboldt chapter of SDS, said he watched the raid on a livestream from his dorm room and was tasked with bailing out arrested protesters. When he arrived at the jail, he said he was shocked to learn that the protesters’ bail had been set at $10,000—which would mean putting up tens of thousands of dollars to ensure everyone was released. 

“Luckily, another bail fund showed up from the Bay and they started bailing people out as well,” said Toledo. “That was a lifesaver because there’s no way we could have bailed everyone out.”

The Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office told The Appeal in an email that law enforcement sent them 35 referrals for criminal charges pertaining to incidents during the raid and that the “number of referrals may be different from the number of actual arrests.” 

The office said the referrals are “under review” and declined to provide additional information.

On the morning of April 30, Humboldt County Sheriff William F. Honsal sent out an email to the sheriffs of seven other California counties, thanking them for sending personnel to Cal Poly Humboldt. Honsal copied a partner in the consulting firm WPSS Group on the message.

“Because of the actions of your deputies, we were able to bring law and order back to the campus,” Honsal wrote in the email, obtained by The Appeal. “Thank you so much for dedicating your personnel to this mission.”

In a statement to The Appeal, Cal Poly said protesters were engaged in “criminal activity” and that law enforcement “began a series of actions to reestablish control of the buildings and other property, protect the rights, safety, and health of all students and employees, and eliminate the threat of violence and criminal behavior.”

But many have disagreed with the university’s view of the raid and the events leading up to it. Aghasaleh, who toured Siemens Hall, said the administration greatly exaggerated the extent of the property damage, which was “minimal” and mostly consisted of graffiti on the walls. 

In an April 30 email obtained by The Appeal, the parent of a Cal Poly Humboldt student told a county supervisor their daughter had been arrested at 3 a.m. while she was “sitting peacefully in a circle” on the campus quad. She was taken to jail and booked on charges of trespassing, resisting arrest, remaining on the scene of a riot, and obstructing a student or teacher, the parent wrote. They included a picture of several people sitting in a circle, holding hands. The supervisor forwarded the email to the sheriff.

“Clearly, she was doing none of those things,” the parent wrote of their daughter’s charges. “She was simply exercising her constitutional right to protest peacefully.”

Read the documents:

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the response from the attorney for Humboldt County.