‘I felt trapped’: Students recount attempted building takeover by protestors

Demonstrators entered Building 570 on May 20 amid a pro-Palestine march on campus. President Richard Saller wrote in a Friday email that the incident was under investigation by Stanford’s Department of Public Safety (SUPDS) and University administrators. 

“At this time, the investigation is ongoing,” an SUDPS spokesperson wrote in a statement to The Daily, where they declined to answer further questions.

Witnesses told The Daily that at least some demonstrators did not appear to be students. Tal Schwartz, a fifth-year mechanical engineering Ph.D. student, said that he first witnessed the protest around 6:25 p.m. through his office window. Many of them were masked and carrying signs with pro-Palestine statements, according to Schwartz. These unmasked individuals outside the building appeared older than the average student: “They appeared to be in their mid-forties or older,” Schwartz said.

Shortly after, protestors entered the building, Schwartz added. He and the others present in his lab locked their door.

Devin Merrell M.S. ’23 and a third-year mechanical engineering Ph.D. student said he was initially confused by the entrance. “I saw a few people in masks enter and naively thought they were there to use the restroom,” Merrell said.

But the demonstrators blocked exits and prevented students from leaving the building. “I felt trapped between the protestors in the street and the protestors in the hallway,” Schwartz wrote. The demonstrators were in the building for around 20 minutes before they were removed by police.

After a phone call with a Graduate Life Office administrator, the students in the building were informed that the police were evacuating protestors and would also escort students from the building. While leaving the building, Schwartz also noticed curse words and “Free Palestine” spray painted in the hallway and on the door to the building.

Following the incident, many buildings moved to require key-card access. Building 570 turned on key-card access directly after the event. According to an email sent to Math 51 students reviewed by The Daily, students should expect to scan in with ID cards for the rest of the quarter. 

“We’re not sure how long the buildings will be locked. Please be sure to bring your ID card for building access for the remainder of the quarter,” professors wrote.

Professors and researchers in Building 570 have taken additional measures to ensure safety. Following the incident, they reached out to the University about extra precautions, especially since the work in 570 involves high-risk experiments. “We’ve had a lot of meetings about security, locking down the building, locking down individual rooms and shutting off all our experiments early just in case we all needed to evacuate quickly,” Schwartz said.

Many researchers did not come to work the next day.

“All it really accomplished was inspiring fear for graduate students working on campus,” Merrell said. “I didn’t come in and there was generally a sense of worry.”

Scientists even advised student researchers not to engage in high-risk experiments during other scheduled protests or marches. 

Saller said in an interview with The Daily that the disruption varied from other protests. “The attempted takeover of Building 570 really crossed the line, in the sense that it threatened the students who were working in the building.”

Students wrote to Saller that they were frightened, in part due to the dangerous chemicals and advanced equipment in the building. Combined with the vandalism, the threat to student safety motivated the University to respond with more serious disciplinary referrals than the ones issued to students who participated in the pro-Palestine encampment in White Plaza. “That crossed the line into physical harm and threat of physical harm, so we took stronger disciplinary action in that case,” Saller said.

The University did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the investigation or potential improvements to safety protocol.

“It would just give us peace of mind to see the University actually do something in the interest of student safety about this”, said Merrell. 

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Schwartz saw unmasked protestors inside the building and after he left the building. The unmasked individuals he witnessed were outside, and he witnessed them through the window. The Daily regrets this error.

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