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Source: The Guardian

May 8, 2024

From Iran to California, this professor protests for human rights – but at what cost?

With their green card expiring soon, Rouhollah Aghasaleh of Cal Poly Humboldt has been suspended after joining a protest

By Jonah Valdez

As dozens of law enforcement officers stormed California State Polytechnic University at Humboldt last week, Rouhollah Aghasaleh, a professor of education, was giving students a lesson on what teargas feels like.

The students were part of a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had occupied two buildings on campus for a week, part of a nationwide protest movement on college campuses over the war in Gaza and its mounting humanitarian crisis. Aghasaleh was the sole faculty member among the Cal Poly students.

A pre-recorded message from the campus chief of police roared from loudspeakers, warning that anyone who stayed could be met with violence. Some in the group began to express anxieties about possible use of rubber bullets or teargas from law enforcement.

“It is a very scary thing,” Aghasaleh said, recounting getting teargassed in the streets of Iran at demonstrations. “It makes your eyes burn and you start having tears. You cannot open your eyes. Then when you cannot see anything, you get nervous and then you start to break down mentally.”

Aghasaleh is one of several faculty members who have been arrested on campuses while standing in solidarity with their students, as colleges and universities across the US have moved to crack down on the student protests in the past week.

Activism has been a part of Aghasaleh’s life for many years, starting in high school and continuing throughout college in their home country of Iran. They joined the student movement in Tehran in 1999 and 2003, pushing for democratic reforms and human and women’s rights. At marches, the Iranian government killed dozens of protesters and arrested thousands more.

Rouhollah Aghasaleh, a professor at Cal Poly Humboldt. Photograph: Courtesy Rouhollah Aghasaleh

During the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, Aghasaleh led a group of legal observers who watched for possible voter fraud. After evidence of a rigged election swirled, they took to the streets with their friends for days.

However, over time, their friends began to disappear, one by one, arrested by the government.

“My family was so concerned every night that I was home late,” they recalled.

In 2011, Aghasaleh fled Iran due to political persecution for their human rights advocacy and immigrated to the US as a refugee. They began teaching at Cal Poly Humboldt in 2020.

When campus protests intensified across the US in April, Cal Poly Humboldt, a school with a rich history of activism and civil disobedience, quickly emerged as a a center of demonstrations.

Students first occupied Siemens Hall on 22 April, renaming it Intifada Hall.

They demanded the school disclose financial holdings and collaborations with Israel, cut all ties with Israeli universities, divest from companies and corporations complicit in the occupation of Palestine and call publicly for a ceasefire. They also demanded law enforcement drop charges against student organizers.

Humboldt county sheriff’s deputies and campus police moved against the barricaded students on 2 May and arrested 32 people, including 13 students and 18 community members, according to university officials and county jail reports.

Officers did not use teargas, but the response was aggressive. Images of one of the demonstrators at Siemens Hall bonking the helmeted head of an officer with an empty plastic water jug went viral across social media.

While police were slow to release the names of the arrested protesters, Aghasaleh quickly became the face of the detainees. They refused to post bail and started a hunger strike.

“I refuse to accept the label of criminal for standing up for an ethical reason,” they said in a video statement wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional black-and-white-patterned headdress and scarf that has become a symbol of the free Palestine movement.

Protesters are facing a series of misdemeanor charges, including criminal trespassing, resisting arrest, remaining at an unlawful assembly and interfering with a business, according to county jail records.

Following their arrest, Aghasaleh said university officials placed them on a two-month suspension, barred them from campus and prohibited them from communicating with students.

Iridian Casarez, a spokesperson for the university, confirmed Aghasaleh remains employed but is on temporary suspension. The university said it intends to follow the process set by its collective bargaining agreement with the faculty union, and will make a decision on Aghasaleh’s employment after the school’s investigation.

“The university supports free speech through open dialogue that is respectful and constructive,” Casarez said. “That does not include behavior that involves destroying and damaging property and disrupting students, faculty and staff from learning, teaching and working.”

Potentially facing charges and with their employment status in limbo, Aghasaleh also fears their chances at permanently remaining in the US could be at risk: their green card expires in October.

“I tend to do the right things in the moment and not overthink the future,” they said, pointing to their faith as a Sufi Muslim. “I came here with four luggages. It’s easy for me to pack and go with two luggages.”

Aghasaleh insisted they were not an organizer in Iran but saw firsthand how undercover government operatives infiltrated the 2003 movement and steered it into a more radical, violent direction, losing them the favor of the public. They say they feared the same fate for their students at Humboldt and wanted the student-led group to stay in control of the narrative.

“All those beautiful gains that we already had was gone – that was a very sad moment,” Aghasaleh said by phone. “Arrests and broken bones heal eventually. But this feeling of betrayal and failure stays with you for the rest of your lives.

“These are students who were advocating for people who are living thousands of miles away. People they have never even met, people that they don’t even know about their lives.”

Like many, Aghasaleh has wondered why, unlike with previous movements, this one was met with what the professor called a “militarized” police response.

Protesters hold up signs while occupying a building at California State Polytechnic University at Humboldt, in Arcata, California, on 22 April 2024. Photograph: Andrew Goff/AP

“I have been involved with student activism, but this level of escalation and this level of violence was just unprecedented. That was shocking,” Aghasaleh said. “And so I thought, I have a body to put on the line and just be with those students.”

While facing arrest, Aghasaleh encouraged students to leave and focus on their next actions.

They began to list all the wins from the past week: a vote of no confidence by the university’s faculty senate calling on the school’s president, Tom Jackson, to resign; administrators compiling and disclosing their investments and ties with Israel, and opening the conversation for divesting; and the international attention their occupation drew, ultimately drawing more attention to Palestine.

“This was an honest conversation – I didn’t pretend that this is a victory,” they said. “I told them that you have made a point, you have made these several achievements. You won’t get anything more from Siemens Hall – the Siemens Hall project is done.”

A university spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the arrests had been made without incident and no injuries were reported. By the weekend, crews worked to clear garbage from Siemens Hall and Nelson Hall East and began to paint over graffiti.

While in jail, Aghasaleh reported safe conditions that respected their gender expression and religion, with officers uncuffing them to do their morning prayers. They did, however, go without their medications. Over the following days, the campus occupiers, including Aghasaleh, were bonded out by a coalition of local legal groups, led by the Bay Area Anti-Repression Committee, who quickly rallied to start a bail fund.

Aghasaleh was released that Tuesday afternoon, but deputies have yet to return their personal items, including their house key. Also, after going without food for more than 24 hours, Aghasaleh had grown weak and queasy.

The last of the protesters were released Wednesday. Later that day, Aghasaleh invited colleagues and students to dinner at a local Chinese buffet, two miles from campus, where Aghasaleh broke their hunger strike.

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