WWU police investigating potential hate crime related to student protest against war in Gaza

Western Washington University police are investigating a hate crime possibly linked to an ongoing campus protest against the war in Gaza.

A Jewish student who was wearing a Star of David necklace told WWU police and The Bellingham Herald that they were spat upon and followed to their dorm on Friday.

The victim, who is not being named, said the attack happened as they were walking past the protesters.

“(Protesters) were chanting in Arabic that the entire land is exclusively Arab land. They were chanting to kick out ‘Zionists’ from (WWU) and specifically the Ethnic Student Center,” the victim told The Herald in a text message.

Zionism is the belief in Jewish self-determination in their ancestral homeland of Israel, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The student said they had simply been walking past the protest, where about 500 to 600 people rallied in favor of a student employees union and for a series of demands that Gaza protesters gave to WWU President Sabah Randhawa last week.

“I was also yelled at by multiple individuals who repeatedly screamed ‘shame.’ Keep in mind I didn’t speak a word to them the whole time. I didn’t realize the antisemitism was so prevalent until yesterday,” the victim said.

At their website, WWU police said the incident is under investigation as a fourth-degree assault and malicious harassment, which is a hate crime and a class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

University spokesman Jonathan Higgins said “a thorough university investigation is under way, receiving our full care and attention.”

It was reported to police and to WWU’s Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance and student support professionals were reaching out to the victim, Higgins said.

“While we do not have confirmation that this antisemitic act was committed by any of our encampment protesters, our student services team, which includes staff focused on de-escalation, addressed expectations with demonstrators on Friday immediately after the incident. The team continues to clearly communicate that this behavior was and is unacceptable, and we will continue engaging with the encampment to reinforce expectations,” Higgins told The Herald in an email.

“Hateful speech, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, is inimical to WWU’s values. Any violence or harassing behavior will be directly dealt with by the University Police Department and the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX Compliance,” he said.

“Are you listening?” and “Free Palestine” are written in chalk on the bricks at Red Square in a screenshot from a live video stream on May 9 at the campus of Western Washington University.
“Are you listening?” and “Free Palestine” are written in chalk on the bricks at Red Square in a screenshot from a live video stream on May 9 at the campus of Western Washington University.

In addition, several incidents of vandalism have been reported to WWU police since the Gaza protest camp, a tent camp on the lawn between Old Main and Viking Union, started May 14.

“Free Palestine” was painted outside Viking Union and the Performing Arts Center; “Free Palestine” and “All eyes on Rafah” were painted in Fairhaven Tunnel; and “Popular University for Gaza” was written on the brickwork outside Wilson Library.

At their website, WWU police reported graffiti in Red Square and damage to Fisher Fountain. “Free Palestine” was written in chalk on the brick walkway, according to a screenshot last week from a camera overlooking Red Square.

WWU officials weren’t immediately able to provide information about the cost and nature of damage to the fountain, but a Herald reader’s email said the fountain had been filled with red dye. The incident was listed on the police log as second-degree malicious mischief, which under state law involves damage over $750 and is a class C felony.

The fountain will be closed until commencement week, Higgins said.

Several college and university campuses across the U.S. have seen similar protest camps in recent weeks as the war in Gaza continues, sparked by the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack that killed 1,200 civilians in Israel, including 45 Americans.

An estimated 35,000 Gazans, including many women and children, have been killed in the fighting. Hamas — which the U.S. and other nations classify as a terrorist organization — still holds more than 100 hostages.