This story has been updated to note Tuesday's campus closure.

College campuses across the US are seeing sit-in style protests against the war in Gaza, and Portland is no exception.

A few hours after a rally Monday afternoon, pro-Palestinian demonstrators broke into and occupied the school’s main library. While Portland State University (PSU) officials previously refrained from calling police to disband an ongoing protest encampment, Monday night’s breach drew threats of criminal charges.

The university campus was closed Tuesday as a result of the ongoing encampment, and damage to the library the night before.

In a late night press conference held at Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct Monday, Portland State University President Ann Cudd, along with Portland’s police chief, mayor, and the district attorney, said police will soon break up the encampment of protesters that’s been stationed in front of PSU’s Branford Price Millar Library for five days. 

Portland Police Chief Bob Day said the ongoing encampment and occupation of the library is “no longer considered to be a public order or free speech event,” and has now turned into a criminal investigation. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said once police are able to gather evidence, he expects felony charges for burglary, criminal mischief, and other misdemeanors against those occupying the library.

A teach-in Monday afternoon led by the group Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) included a professor from Birzeit University in Ramallah, Palestine, now teaching at PSU on a Fulbright Scholarship. He spoke candidly about the daily struggles he and his family faced in the West Bank.

Immediately after the teach-in, hundreds gathered for a Palestinian solidarity rally at Portland’s South Park Blocks downtown. Across the street, an encampment shrouded by “free Palestine” signs and “cease fire now” posters has blocked a portion of PSU’s library since Friday. 

Later Monday evening, students and protesters overtook the school’s library, reportedly breaking windows to gain entry. Students said they wouldn’t leave until “demands are met.”

“Once it is secure, any student will have access to study, get resources, eat warm food, sleep somewhere dry, attend teach-ins, and be in community,” a student read in a recorded message filmed inside the library. “We do not want to hurt our fellow peers, we simply refuse to be complicit in genocide.”

A pro-Palestine encampment encompasses the entrance to Portland State University's Branford Price Millar Library on April 27. courtney vaughn

Students at PSU, as well as Reed College, and the University of Oregon in Eugene, are jointly calling on their universities to condemn US-aided genocide in Gaza, and to “disclose and divest our endowments from corporations supplying and profiting off of the Israeli occupation, to defend Palestinian students, and to keep police off our campuses.”

Cudd said she met with protesters camped in front of the library Saturday morning, and asked them to keep at least one entrance clear for students and faculty. They complied. A university spokesperson said Cudd even bought them donuts in a “gesture of good will.”

The university told the Mercury on Monday that no disciplinary action was planned against students protesting. By Monday night, that message had changed.

“Over the weekend, we did not take any immediate action against the encampment,” Cudd said just after 11 pm Monday. “We wanted to avoid escalating the situation. …By this morning, Monday morning, the encampment had grown and has resulted in much greater property damage and intimidation on our campus.”

Hundreds gather in Portland's Park Blocks for a Palestine solidarity rally. kevin foster

The university’s president said she’s asked for Portland Police Bureau’s help to disband the encampment, and urged students in the library to leave peacefully.

Cudd previously said Jewish students reported feeling intimidated by the protests and messages. For other students, the scene brought solace.

“It’s so good to see my flag being displayed when we can’t even display the flag in our own country,” Maysa AbuSneineh, a Palestinian student at PSU, said as she passed the encampment Saturday with a group of friends.

Jenna Saadeh, a Palestinian Portlander and PSU alumnus, says for decades Portland students have called attention to Gaza, but now students across the nation are united in their stance.

“What I’m sensing from students is they want to engage with the cause for justice in Palestine,” Saadeh told the Mercury. “I think they’re seeing these movements across university campuses and feeling empowered to educate themselves about Palestine, educate each other…and really create change on campuses.”

Cudd insisted PSU supports free speech, adding she’s been willing to “entertain debate and discuss the demands of protesters,” but said the library break-in was the tipping point.

“We know that this issue, the war in Gaza, is important to many individuals in our community and emotions are running high,” Cudd said late Monday. “Many feel that the injustices are just too large to ignore, and I understand this, but I cannot condone or excuse breaking and entering. I cannot condone the property damage that has taken place at PSU’s library.”

PSU leaders say they’re not yet sure what the extent of the damage is, aside from broken windows and graffiti.

For months, students urged action

In the months leading up to the ongoing encampment at PSU, SUPER, the student group, urged the university’s board of trustees to end its relationship with weapons and aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which has supplied weapons to the Israeli military.

Students and faculty deliver a letter to the PSU president's office
April 22, asking university administration to drop any discipline against 
the college's Palestinian student group and cut ties with Boeing. 

In January, students with SUPER interrupted a board meeting to call attention to PSU’s ties with Boeing. PSU administration later placed SUPER on probation for property damage during that meeting. The student group was required to attend a workshop on free speech, civil disobedience, diplomacy, and advocacy strategy, but PSU says none of the students were disciplined individually.

PSU faculty and students, along with Portland chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Democratic Socialists of America, followed up with a letter to Cudd on April 22, signed by more than 1,300 people. The letter asked that she “rescind the retaliatory measures taken against students” following the January board meeting. 

Yasmeen Hanoosh, an Iraqi-born professor of Arabic now teaching at PSU, says the university’s recent actions conflict with its claims of advancing a mission of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Hanoosh says PSU has chilled the free speech of BIPOC students and faculty, cutting funding to the college’s Arabic program and policing professors’ rhetoric in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas, and Israel’s military response.

She says her department was instructed to silence her after she spoke about ethnic cleansing in Gaza last October “by suddenly instating university policies around the use of departmental listservs that prohibit discussion of ‘political content.’”

Students and staff saw little response from university leadership until last Friday, when Cudd announced PSU would temporarily suspend any grants and philanthropic gifts from Boeing. The community message came hours after police and Portland park rangers broke up a small encampment at the South Park Blocks, destroying signs and discarding tents at the park, citing protesters’ refusal to leave the park after it closed at 9 pm. 

Shams Mahmoud, a PSU student and SUPER member, said the push for PSU to sever ties with Boeing is “not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”  

“We need to be strategic about this,” Mahmoud says. “We can’t just pop up tents with two days of planning, that’s never going to work. If we want this to be a successful campaign to get our demands fully met, we need to amount the exact right pressure on administration.”

Kevin Foster contributed reporting to this story.