Peter Savodnik reports on Gaza encampment at Cal Poly Humboldt
Inside Siemens Hall at Cal Poly Humboldt, which students turned into a Gaza encampment. (Photo by Andrew Goff via Lost Coast Outpost)

Peter Savodnik: The Kids vs. the Empire

No one I spoke to had been to Israel or the West Bank or Gaza or could define Zionism. A report from an encampment 7,248 miles from Gaza.

ARCATA, California — On Monday night, the last night of the Gaza encampment at Cal Poly Humboldt, the students were girding for a final showdown with jackbooted cops and circling helicopters and all-seeing drones. 

They wore kerchiefs or masks—which, of course, made it harder to identify them and lent them a vaguely Red Army Faction toughness. Many had tattoos on their necks and wrists, and they smelled like weed and body odor, like overlapping wafts of dried sweat and grime. They had access to campus toilets but not showers.

They had demanded that the university divest from Israel. University officials had estimated that they had done millions in damage to the campus. 

They talked about rumors of SWAT teams coming up from Chico or Sacramento, maybe the National Guard, highway patrol officers, “pigs”—cops—from all over northern California.

They alluded to a Kent State–like showdown.

They thought it was them versus the American Empire, and they envisioned taking part in a grand decolonization struggle that extended from Rafah to the Angolan diamond mines to the United States’ southern border to this little college town just south of the Oregon state line, enveloped by redwoods and rednecks and weed growers and flatbed trucks.

They said they expected they would wind up in a darkened cell, or worse.

“We really have no idea what’s going to happen,” one bearded man, an undergraduate, told me.

Another undergraduate who called herself Trillium said: “My grandmother saw me on the news the other day. She went to Berkeley, and she texted me and said, ‘You are braver than I ever was. I went to protests, but I never did anything like this.’ That was pretty incredible.”

Like most every student in the encampment, Trillium, who is a botany major, didn’t want anyone knowing her name. She was afraid of being expelled. 

“We’re hearing that anyone associated with the encampment is being thrown out,” another woman told me. “Same with faculty, who could get fired.”

They could feel the pressure pushing in on the world they had created for themselves a week before, when they took over the quad and then occupied two campus buildings.

Since then, they had barricaded themselves inside the encampment, with piles of desks and chairs separating their tents from the rest of the campus, and they had spray-painted walls—“Decolonization!” “Free Palestine!”—and they had chalked pink, blue, yellow, and green drawings on the pavement that extended from the encampment to the area just outside it: “Cops Need Therapy,” “Viva Palestina,” “Fags 4 Peace,” and so forth.

They had also scrawled the names of dead Gazans on the pavement, the columns, the walls. And they had cobbled together a “mutual aid kitchen,” which they called the MAK and consisted of several collapsible tables. That was where they made three meals a day for everyone in the encampment. On Sunday, they had “a nice curry stew with braised kale,” and for dessert, mango sticky rice, a bearded man with a British accent told me. He added that sympathetic locals donated all provisions for their meals, and he didn’t see why that should stop. 

“We have so much food, we don’t know what to do with it,” he said.

Trillium added: “Part of our policy is that, you know, we don’t charge anyone. Everything there is free for the taking for anyone.”

She was heartbroken to think the pigs might take away their community. “Being in the quad, being with community, is the safest and most endangered I’ve ever felt.”

She explained: “I know every single person here, whether or not they know my face or my name, has my back, and I know that I have theirs. The sense of love and community here is just magic. It’s incredible. It’s something that I never want to lose, and I’m so, so grateful to call this place home. But at the same time, we are under constant threat of violence.”

This post is for paying subscribers only


Already have an account? Log in

our Comments

Use common sense here: disagree, debate, but don't be a .

the fp logo
comment bg

Welcome to The FP Community!

Our comments are an editorial product for our readers to have smart, thoughtful conversations and debates — the sort we need more of in America today. The sort of debate we love.   

We have standards in our comments section just as we do in our journalism. If you’re being a jerk, we might delete that one. And if you’re being a jerk for a long time, we might remove you from the comments section. 

Common Sense was our original name, so please use some when posting. Here are some guidelines:

  • We have a simple rule for all Free Press staff: act online the way you act in real life. We think that’s a good rule for everyone.
  • We drop an occasional F-bomb ourselves, but try to keep your profanities in check. We’re proud to have Free Press readers of every age, and we want to model good behavior for them. (Hello to Intern Julia!)
  • Speaking of obscenities, don’t hurl them at each other. Harassment, threats, and derogatory comments that derail productive conversation are a hard no.
  • Criticizing and wrestling with what you read here is great. Our rule of thumb is that smart people debate ideas, dumb people debate identity. So keep it classy. 
  • Don’t spam, solicit, or advertise here. Submit your recommendations to if you really think our audience needs to hear about it.
Close Guidelines