Campus community should support lawsuit against police misconduct during Occupy Cal protest

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Kira Walker/File

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Editor’s note: A version of this op-ed was previously published on the Bay Any Means Necessary webiste and is printed here with permissions from the author.

As Chancellor Carol Christ allows controversial right-wing provocateurs on campus under the claims of “free speech,” it is important to recognize a vital case pending before the federal courts protecting the genuine free speech rights of protestors from both UC Berkeley and the city of Berkeley who allegedly experienced excessive force by the UC Police Department and Alameda County Sheriffs during the Occupy Movement in 2011. The case will be heard Sept. 13, and we invite all genuine supporters of student protesters’ free speech rights to show up.

On Wednesday, the plaintiffs — who participated in the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement — will argue their right to take the UC Berkeley administration to trial for supervisory responsibility of police misconduct on Nov. 9, 2011. This case will set a standard for protections of free speech for student protesters standing up for public education, to defend Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and all undocumented immigrant rights, and for civil rights on college campuses across the nation. In the context of the growing movement against President Donald Trump and the leadership role of college students at UC Berkeley and throughout the nation, victory in this case is vital to protect the continued growth of the movement on college campuses and against campus administrations that work to suppress protest through their police departments actions.

Almost six years ago, on Nov. 9, 2011, former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau allowed phalanxes of police from UCPD and the Alameda County Sheriffs to use force against students and community activists who were attempting to set up tents to peacefully express support for the burgeoning Occupy movement at UC Berkeley. We were fighting to defend public education, to oppose fee hikes, to make UC Berkeley a sanctuary campus, to restore affirmative action at UC Berkeley and increase Latinx, black and Native American student enrollment.

The shocking display of violence inflicted on peaceful protesters by the police was caught on video and went viral within hours. Thousands of students and community members in Berkeley and across the country mobilized, rallied and marched in solidarity.

Twenty-one people represented by United for Equality and Affirmative Action Legal Defense Fund sued UC Berkeley administrators and the police, and in January 2016 at the District Court, we won the right to put them on trial. But now, UC Berkeley administrators are trying to get themselves dismissed from the case through an appeal, despite thousands of pages of email evidence and hours of deposition testimony that show their alleged direct responsibility for and knowledge of the police violence. Administrators have filed an appeal to the 9th Court Federal Appeals Court to try to get out of the case that will be argued by both parties this Wednesday.

Picket and fill the federal courtroom Wednesday, Sept. 13 to demand that the UC Berkeley administration be held accountable for its alleged role in the brutalization of peaceful student and community protesters by campus police. We must ensure that this never happens again. We need to bring the movement into the courtroom so that the Appeals Court judges understand that they will be held accountable, too. The movement for public education, sanctuary and affirmative action will fight for real democracy and real freedom of speech that must be preserved in the face of police brutality.

This lawsuit is unique in that it places the university administrators who allegedly made the political decision to send armed police into a peaceful student protest on trial. It is our chance to put them on the witness stand and make them answer. It is our chance to strengthen the ability of student movements on college and university campuses everywhere to fight for and win democracy and equality. It is our chance to forge a turning point in history where student voices and leadership will help determine the future of the whole nation.

Yvette Felarca is the lead plaintiff of Felarca v. Birgeneau and a representative of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).