Use of police force draws fierce condemnation

Police attempt to break through a line of students on Nov. 9 during the Occupy Cal protests.
Tony Zhou/Staff
Police attempt to break through a line of students on Nov. 9 during the Occupy Cal protests.

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For UC Berkeley graduate student Alex Barnard, the most disempowering moment of Wednesday night was not when he was repeatedly hit with a police baton, cracking one of his ribs. Instead, the most disturbing moment of his experience came afterward, when he says an officer told him he had “no rights.”

According to Barnard, who was arrested along with 31 others as part of Wednesday night’s Occupy Cal demonstration, after he was handcuffed with a zip tie and taken into Sproul Hall, a police officer asked him for identifying information. Rather than immediately answering, Barnard said he asked the officer about his rights and when he would be allowed to speak to a lawyer. It was then that the officer told him he had no rights and, after Barnard disputed the statement, said he would be recorded as “uncooperative” on his police forms, according to Barnard.

“You didn’t have a voice,” Barnard said.

The experience described by Barnard and his fellow protesters’ violent treatment at the hands of the police — supported by video footage taken at the demonstration — has led to widespread condemnation of the police response. Critics ranging from campus student groups to members of the UC Berkeley faculty and even the national media have spoken out against the police officers’ use of force.

According to a campuswide email sent by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and other top campus administrators, the campus Police Review Board will investigate whether police used excessive force given the circumstances.

According to UCPD Capt. Margo Bennett, the identification process Barnard described is completely different from any kind of interview or interrogation process and is not involved with the right to have an attorney present. She said she was not aware of the exchange described by Barnard but said it is not the kind of exchange the department wants officers and arrestees to have.

Bennett added that the police force’s objective was to remove the encampment because it posed a threat to public safety.

“We already knew that if an encampment got started on the campus we were going to have health and safety issues, we were going to have public safety issues (and) we were going to have an element on the campus that does not fit with the academic business that is conducted,” she said. “Once we began moving towards the tents, the level of resistance from the students is what generated the arrests.  It was the willful obstruction of the officers: the body-blocking, the pushing, the yelling, a couple times things were thrown … those were the kinds of things that prompted the arrests of individuals.”

Celeste Langan, a campus associate professor of English and one of the protesters arrested Wednesday afternoon, said in an email that she knew that what she was doing by participating in the human chain was a form of nonviolent resistance, knew that she was disobeying the police order to disperse and knew that her participation made her subject to arrest. But, she said, she expected the police would arrest the protesters “in a similarly nonviolent manner.”

“Rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed,” Langan said in the email. “They could have taken the time to arrest us for refusal to disperse without violence … Since the tents posed no immediate threat to public safety, their haste and level of force were unwarranted.”

But in their campuswide email, Birgeneau and other administrators said the protesters’ actions — linking arms to form a human chain and obstructing police officers — did not constitute nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We regret that, given the instruction to take down tents and prevent encampment, the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy,” the email reads.

Taro Yamaguchi-Phillips, a junior at UC Berkeley and one of the 32 arrested Wednesday night, said the police response was excessive and protesters were completely nonviolent.

“I am sure there were many other tactics they could have used,” he said. “Their first response was violence.”

As of press time, an open letter to the campus administration penned by three campus associate professors condemning the police response had been signed by 808 campus instructors.

“(We) are outraged by the unnecessary and excessive use of violence by the police and sheriff’s deputies against peaceful protesters,” the letter reads.

Bennett said she could not make a statement on whether the police use of force was justified until an internal operational review about the event is conducted.

Similar stands of solidarity with the protesters were made by the systemwide UC Student Association, the campus student government and commentators across the country.

Langan said in her email that the complaint she plans to file with UCPD will in part address the arrest procedure. According to Langan, though she was arrested Wednesday afternoon, she was not released until about 1:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

Jordan Bach-Lombardo of The Daily Californian contributed to this report.

Sarah Burns is the lead crime reporter.