In a Portland Library, Activists Fortify for a Standoff

In a Portland Library, Activists Fortify for a Standoff

At Portland State University’s crescent-shaped library, students can normally peer through floor-to-ceiling windows at the leafy green spaces below. But the library, under occupation since Monday by pro-Palestinian protesters, now has been turned into a makeshift fortress.

Chairs are piled around the windows. Wood pallets are stacked next to the doors as fortifications. Next to what is normally a circulation desk, students have established a medic center, preparing for what might happen if police officers try to force their way in.

“We’ll stop occupying this building when Israel stops occupying Palestine,” reads one of many messages scrawled on the walls in red paint.

Portland State, founded as a campus to educate World War II veterans, has a long history of protest. In 1970, students and other anti-Vietnam War protesters battled with the police in the greenbelt near campus. The clashes sent dozens of protesters to the hospital in what became known as the Battle of the Park Blocks. The city engaged in furious protests in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd, with activists marching through the streets and smashing windows long after other cities had gone quiet.

Now, the city’s new center of protest is Millar Library, where for more than a day dozens of demonstrators have ignored college administrators’ pleas to vacate the premises.

The university has called for the Portland Police Bureau to intervene. But after a late-night news conference on Monday in which the authorities warned of possible felony charges for those who refused to leave, the activists dug in and began to prepare for what might come next.

Inside the library on Tuesday, young people wearing black clothes and masks were moving furniture to build up the barricades around doors and windows. Others were sleeping at a rest station.

On a sheet of yellow paper, organizers had scrawled a list of needs, calling for water, vegan foods, radios, balaclavas, helmets and respirators. By midafternoon, two cars had pulled up with more wood pallets.

Most of those organizing the operation said they did not want to speak about it, even anonymously. One student who declined to give their name said they planned to stay as long as possible.

Faisal Ibraheem, a student who was not involved in the occupation but showed up to support the effort, said Tuesday that as a Muslim student, he had been horrified by what he had seen happening with Israel’s military operation in Gaza, which is the focus of the library protest and others like it around the country.

“There has to be something done, and if it comes down to this, and that this might be the only way you know, they might actually start doing something,” he said.

But another student, Michael Bausch, said he thought that the activists were correct in their goals, but that their effort seemed to lack direction and the solutions should come from allowing everyone in the community to be heard.

“I feel like we should have a better student coalition than this,” he said.

The students have demanded that the university cut ties with the Boeing Co., which has supplied weaponry to Israel, and also for the university leadership to call for an unconditional cease-fire.

Initially, the university took a hands-off approach to the demonstrations, hoping to avoid an escalation. The university’s president, Ann Cudd, said she had been told that the group at the library included a mix of students, staff, faculty and community members, and felt it was appropriate for the university to engage with them.

Last week, Ms. Cudd said the university would agree to suspend accepting any financial gifts from Boeing until there could be a broader debate about the issue.

But as the demonstrators began taking over the library building, Ms. Cudd said she could not condone the property damage that could be seen from the street outside.

“I have supported the right to peaceful protest,” she said in a message to the university on Tuesday. “And I am willing to meet with students to hear them out. However, these unlawful acts cannot continue.”

Outside the entrance to the library, though, there was a smeared sign that had a message for her: “Ann Cudd: Hands Full of Blood.”

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