Birgeneau did not object to Nov. 9 baton use at the time, emails show

On November 9th, 2011, protestors and police clashed over an encampment that protestors had erected near Sproul Hall.
David Herschorn/File
On November 9th, 2011, protestors and police clashed over an encampment that protestors had erected near Sproul Hall.

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Recently released correspondence involving UC Berkeley administrators indicates that Chancellor Robert Birgeneau approved of — or at least did not question — the police use of batons at the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal protest.

Birgeneau, who was in Asia during the protest, exchanged several emails over the course of the protest with campus Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer, who described 300 to 400 people “(locking) arms to prevent police from getting access to the tents.” He also described “police (using) batons to gain access to the tents.”

“This is really unfortunate,” Birgeneau said in response. “However, our policies are absolutely clear. Obviously this group want(ed) exactly such a confrontation.”

In a subsequent reply, Birgeneau stressed his opposition to encampments and the need to remove them at all costs.

“It is critical that we do not back down on our no encampment policy. Otherwise, we will end up in Quan land,”Birgeneau said in reference to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, whose shifting responses to the Occupy Oakland encampment contributed to violent clashes between protesters and police on multiple occasions.

This email exchange occurred between 4:28 p.m. and 5:36 p.m. — not long after police officers first used batons to remove the Sproul encampment —  according to the email timestamps. A police force then raided the Sproul encampment, again using batons, later that evening.

“Any fair reading of (those emails) is a ratification of the first time the batons were used,” said Linda Lye, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which obtained the emails under the Public Records Act. “(It wasn’t) ‘Oh dear, was anyone hurt, did you try anything else.’”

Despite Birgeneau’s quick response time to emails on Nov. 9, campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said that given Birgeneau’s distance from campus, his ability to maintain oversight of the events was “very limited.”

“I have seen so far absolutely nothing that would suggest there was any inconsistency whatsoever between the chancellor’s public comments and the correspondence he had with the provost and others during that time,” Mogulof said.

Birgeneau did not change his tenor the next day, when, while still in Asia, he sent an email to the entire campus community regarding the Nov. 9 events.

“We regret that, in spite of forewarnings, we encountered a situation where, in order to uphold our policy, we were required to forcibly remove tents and arrest people,” Birgeneau said in the campuswide email.

Later in the message, he wrote that it was “unfortunate” that protesters “chose to obstruct the police” by linking arms in protest and defense of the tents.

“This is not non-violent civil disobedience,” Birgeneau wrote. “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. We regret all injuries, to protesters and police, that resulted from this effort.”

But he dramatically changed tack Nov. 14 when, in another message to the campus community, he declared that after having finally watched video footage of the Nov. 9 protest the day before, the “events of (Nov. 9) are unworthy of us as a university community.”

“Most certainly, we cannot condone any excessive use of force against any members of our community,” he said in the message. Birgeneau also granted amnesty from student conduct charges to UC Berkeley students arrested and cited for trying to stop police from removing the tents.

This about-face came full circle Nov. 22 when, while traveling for Thanksgiving, he recorded an audio message and released it to the campus community.

“I sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 at UC Berkeley and extend my sympathies to any of you who suffered an injury during these protests,” Birgeneau said. “As chancellor, I take full responsibility for these events and will do my very best to ensure that this does not happen again.”

He reiterated this apology at a Nov. 28 UC Berkeley Academic Senate meeting.

Since the controversial protest, Birgeneau has faced severe criticism which included calls for his resignation. At the Nov. 28 meeting, the academic senate passed four resolutions criticizing the administration’s handling of the protest.

The campus Police Review Board, which is currently reviewing the protest events, will determine who bears responsibility for the day’s events. The ACLU sent a letter to the board Tuesday stating that evidence shows that the campus’s conduct on Nov. 9 was “fundamentally inconsistent with the values of a public university which purports to be a community dedicated to the free and robust exchange of ideas.”

Students injured during the protest have also filed a lawsuit against, among others, Birgeneau and campus UCPD Chief Mitch Celaya.

Senior staff writer J.D. Morris contributed to this report.