When students at the University of California, Berkeley, attempted to set up an Occupy Wall Street encampment, campus police answered on Nov. 9 with their batons. But witnesses captured the beating of students on video, and the violent response to a peaceful protest sparked a national outcry.
For nearly an hour last week, UC Berkeley faculty grilled Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and administration officials about the incident. Executive Vice-Chancellor George Breslauer admitted that, in retrospect, "tactically, it would’ve been better to wait, to wait perhaps until the middle of the night to minimize the number of encounters between police and protesters and observers."
But it wasn’t just the recent heavy-handed response by campus police that outraged the faculty members. It was the fact that University of California police have been aggressively attacking students for years. And, despite independent commissions telling them repeatedly to clean up their act, seemingly nothing has changed.
"[Birgeneau's comments] do not negate the repeated pattern of the use of excessive force against non-violent protests," Berkeley sociology professor Barrie Thorne said at the Monday meeting.
Professor Anaya Roy criticized the administration for ordering police to clear out the protesters, and for blaming students for the clashes.
"The chancellor has apologized and I appreciate that apology, but an apology is appropriate for an isolated episode," Roy said. "What were the lessons learned two years ago?"
The November Occupy Cal protests, though aligned with the national Occupy Wall Street movement, are more a part of a series of protests that began several years ago, rallying against tuition hikes and the privatization of California’s higher education institutions. Tuition and fees for UC students may rise as much as 82 percent in the next four years.
On Nov. 20, 2009, 40 students occupied UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall, protesting impending custodial firings and a 32 percent tuition hike, while some 2,000 supporters gathered outside. In theconfrontation that followed, campus police beat protesters with batons and shot them at point-blank range with rubber bullets. At least 100 students and faculty members were arrested over the course of three days.
It was one of the biggest clashes on campus before last month’s, but the University of California has seen numerous others over the years. In 2005, a protest against tuition and fee increases called "Tent University" — which originally began at Rutgers University in New Jersey — led to multiple arrests at UC Santa Cruz. Critics accused the campus police of being too aggressive and using "pain compliance" measures to subdue demonstrators. Faculty members asked the administration to halt the arrests and not pursue disciplinary action against the student protesters, but their requests were ignored.
The next year, UCLA police tased a student in a library for refusing to show his student ID. Hundreds of students gathered in protest following the incident, demanding an investigation. It turned out the officer involved had been criticized for previous incidents of excessive force. UCLA and the student eventually settled a lawsuit, for $220,000.
In 2007, UC Berkeley students occupied trees to prevent them from being destroyed to make room for new construction. In an attempt to force the students down, campus police cut the ropes being used to transport food and water to them.
The move angered protesters and led to physical altercations on the ground, students gathering in the street to block traffic and eventually, arrests. Berkeley’s mayor, Tom Bates, said there was "no justification" for police to cut the tree-sitters off from food and water.
Protests and clashes with police ramped up even more in 2009 and 2010, as students began dealing with dramatic tuition hikes and the university’s labor unions, whose members bore the brunt of layoffs and furloughs, began joining the demonstrations.
The same month as the 2009 Wheeler Hall confrontation in Berkeley, campus police at UCLA usedtasers and batons on students who disrupted a UC Board of Regents meeting about fee increases.
During a protest on March 4, 2010, student demonstrators occupied a portion of California’s Interstate 80, leading to the tasing of at least one, and arrests of dozens more.
When 300 people showed up at a Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco to protest against tuition hikes in November 2010, authorities pepper sprayed at least 15 students and arrested 13. Reportedly, students trying to stop an officer from using his baton struck him in the head. During the melee he pulled a loaded gun on a crowd of protesters surrounding him in a parking garage.
Despite the documented use of force at other campuses, protesters were surprised when it reached UC Davis last month in the form of an officer in riot gear casually pepper-spraying students sitting on the ground. The video of the officer, Lt. John Pike, has gone viral on the internet.
"When all of a sudden we heard there were 30 riot-geared police officers standing on the quad, that was something that have never been heard of at UC Davis," Tatiana Bush, a former senator of the University of California student government, said. "It sent chills down spines."
Bush was on the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Advisory Board last year. She said Davis students often support the bigger protests at Berkeley and San Francisco, but to see police confronting protesters on their own campus was shocking. "We didn’t know what we were doing, we’d never had a protest like that."
"I’ve worked with Lt. Pike, I don’t believe he’s the devil reincarnated," Bush said. "He just made a stupid decision."
Bush gave UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi credit for speaking directly to students within days of the incident, but she said there still needs to be accountability for what happened. Bush will be serving on one of the task forces that will review the UC Davis police response.
Yet, there have been a number of such reviews in the wake of the clashes between students and campus police over the years.
A report commissioned by a special university task force following the 2005 Tent University incident at Berkeley included condemnations of the UCPD as well as a number of recommendations about how to avoid conflicts with student protesters in the future.
"We believe the use of police was unwarranted and seriously endangered the safety of the students at Tent University and threatened to escalate into a wider conflagration," the report stated.
After the 2009 Wheeler Hall protests, a review board released an extensive report known as the "Brazil Report." The 2010 report recommended that campus police "look for alternative means to [control protests] that would require the least intrusive or provocative interaction with the crowd." It also chastised the Berkeley administration for not speaking with students ahead of time, despite the fact that major protests were widely publicized in advance.
In the wake of the clashes last month, however, critics say it’s hard to see that any progress has been made. Catherine Cole, a professor in the UC Berkeley theater department, said she’s found no evidence that the administration has heeded the Brazil Report’s advice. "No one’s even claimed that anything has been done in response to the report," Cole said.
Claire Holmes, a spokesperson for UC Berkeley, told The Huffington Post that the school has been following through on the recommendations for several months. A report from September shows that about half of the reforms remain listed as "ongoing."
"The incidents of Nov. 9 are not a reflection of our best efforts," Holmes admitted. "The next review of that incident will help us to continue to improve. Were we perfect? Absolutely not. Can we improve? Yes."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has flagged eight of the 10 UC campuses for maintaining unconstitutional policies against free speech. This is because the campuses have not made changes, despite a 2009 memo by UC President Mark Yudof directing campus police and administration officials to fix the problems.
Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, said it seemed to him that campus police have been increasingly overreacting during incidents.
The Huffington Post has obtained a draft memo from one UC campus outlining plans to impose stricter rules regulating who can protest, and requiring students interested in holding demonstrations on campus to obtain approval weeks ahead of time.
University of California officials tell HuffPost they’ll be evaluating the entire UC system’s handling of protests for all 10 campuses around the state.
Lynn Tierney, vice-president of communications at the University of California, said there would be four investigations to produce an overall look at the policies throughout the system.
"While some may choose to prejudge good-faith efforts to take a fair and uncompromising look at recent events involving police and protests, we think it’s prudent to await the outcomes of fact finding and multiple reviews," said Steve Montiel, media relations director for Yudof’s office.
But Andrea Barrera, a UC Berkeley undergrad involved in the protests, said another review just won’t cut it. "It is not enough, we are saying this is repeated behavior and we want the UCPD off campus," Barrera said.
Students and professors alike are questioning why the campus police are even armed in the first place. At this point, Barrera said, they have little faith left in what the administration promises it will or won’t do.
Cole said the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis has been a galvanizing event, forcing people to take note of a systemic problem.
"I think it has really shifted people who maybe before chose to look the other way," Cole said.
The UCPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment by The Huffington Post. However, UC police Capt. Margo Bennett defended the use of batons against Berkeley students, telling the San Francisco Chronicle recently, "The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence."
Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington said that given the area’s long history of protest, the campus police should have a better crowd-control plan by now.
"It may take a little longer to arrest them than to hit them, but it’s pretty much what we expect in the United States and in Berkeley," Worthington said.
Every public college handles campus security differently. The University of California Police Department has jurisdiction over the UC campuses around the state. The city police can come onto campus at any time, and the UCPD can request aid from city cops. But the UCPD is ultimately responsible to the university administration, who ordered them to control the protesters at almost every demonstration in question.
Faculty throughout the UC system have been speaking out widely in opposition to the administration and the UCPD. At least 1,700 faculty members signed a petition expressing no confidence in the Berkeley administration following the Nov. 9 incident.
Robert Meister, president of the Council of University of California Faculty Associations, said the current investigations are just to determine who UC President Yudof can pin the blame on — other than himself.
"The office of the president was trying to figure out whether to scapegoat the chancellor or the police chief," Meister said.
Meister, who is a political science professor at UC Santa Cruz, insisted the university would prefer the students to protest against budget cuts by the state government, rather than direct their ire at the school over tuition hikes. "The universities always wanted them to direct their anger against Sacramento and not the university," Meister said.
Meister said he believed the increased number of aggressive encounters between campus police and students has been an attempt to quell the protests, which he said have more power now that there’s a national Occupy movement.
But despite the heavy-handed response by campus police, and the threat of future arrests, students have continued their protests across the UC system.
Holmes, the UC Berkeley spokesperson, could not speak for the UCPD but insisted the university is improving its response to student protests.
"We tried to respond to [past protests] and we are still improving and learning and committed to doing that, and have more investigation to do," Holmes said. "At this point we’re 100 percent committed to not having this happen again."
Schools: University of California, Berkeley