Bringing the temperature down: Dr. Randall Blazak on lessons learned from PSU campus protests

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — After protests calling for a ceasefire in Gaza resulted in the occupation and destruction of Portland State University’s Millar Library, prompting the campus’s closure for several days and culminating in multiple arrests, a local expert and retired PSU professor is weighing in on lessons learned from the experience.

Dr. Randall Blazak, a sociology professor and member of the federally-funded CURE:PNW, told KOIN 6 News that, while related campus protests across the country turned violent – such as UCLA – and others had administrations actively engage with what protesters were asking for – such as Rutgers and Brown – PSU fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

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This is in part due to PSU initially stating they would put a pause on their relationship with Boeing as well as the de-escalation tactics employed by law enforcement during the library’s occupation, according to Blazak.

“We got this first utilized during the Occupy protest about 14 years ago, where the police just stayed back a little bit and let the protest run its course without directly engaging,” he said “But then when things kind of tipped over into more sustained violent behavior, then there was sort of a call for the shutdown of the protests and for some arrests to be made.”

Blazak additionally emphasized an observation by protesters in that, while police were carrying tasers and batons, there were no guns on their person. All of this in contrast to what Blazak called the “stormtrooper” militarized police presence seen in 2020.

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“That created a word of mouth among the protest community that it’s not us versus them, because the us versus them mentality is what causes these escalations that erupted in violence,” he noted. “We want to bring the temperature down.”

Nonetheless, Blazak stated how law enforcement faces a tough balancing act with delineating between free speech and criminal behavior.

“On one side, you’ve got legitimate protest that’s protected by the Constitution. On the other side, you’ve got people who just want to destroy things. And sometimes that’s very ego-driven by personalities within the movement,” he said. “And sometimes the destruction part completely distracts from the larger message of the protests themselves.”

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At the administrative level, Blazak suggested universities continue to engage in conversations regarding divestment from companies supporting the conflict in the Middle East, in order to prevent potential criminal action.

“We know from research going way back to the Vietnam War protests that when students feel they have a way of influencing decision makers, they’re less likely to escalate into things that look like violence,” he added.

Despite the protests and the damage sustained, Blazak acknowledged he sees this as a “win” for Portland. But in an election year, the relationship between protesters, law enforcement and perhaps even university administration, will be a continued process.

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