Billy Clubs at Berkeley and Plastic Bullets at Riverside: What’s Next?

Anna Vignet/Staff

In a 1968 magazine interview, director Alfred Hitchcock was asked, “You’ve made a lot of movies to scare people. What are you afraid of?”

“The only thing I’m afraid of is the police,” Hitchcock replied, “because they can get away with murder.”

Perhaps we should examine the automatic response of the university to deploy an armed force at student demonstrations. Who do we think UC police are protecting with their guns?

An administrative spokesperson for the University of California at Riverside, where campus police fired plastic bullets at students protesting burdensome tuition hikes, compared the force of plastic bullets to that of a paintgun. “If you play paintball, you know that it does sting, but it is not going to put you in the hospital.”

Wikipedia and other sources tell a different story:

“A plastic bullet or plastic baton round (PBR) is a non-lethal projectile … developed by the British security forces to replace rubber bullets in an attempt to reduce fatalities. If misused they can still cause fatal injury.”

Numerous types of projectiles fired from guns, including plastic bullets, rubber bullets, wooden bullets, string-ball grenades (BB sized pellets in a sack) and bean bags are generally termed “less lethal ammunition.” They have become standard elements of crowd control by police in the U.S. and much of the world.

In Northern Ireland from 1973 (when they were developed) to 1981, 14 people were killed by plastic bullets.

On April 7, 2003, Oakland police fired a variety of “less lethal” projectiles at  peaceful protesters who were against the Iraq War. At least 12 were hit. Some sustained permanent nerve damage and disfiguration.  Resultant lawsuits forced the City of Oakland to pay out over half a million dollars.

In 2004, Boston police fired rubber bullets into a crowd celebrating a Red Sox American League championship victory. A 21-year-old Emerson College student, Victoria Snelgrove, was hit in the head and killed.

Campus police have wielded billy clubs against peaceful students and faculty here at UC Berkeley, pepper spray at UC Davis, and plastic bullets at UC Riverside.  What’s next?

In May, 1970, at a time when the country was deeply polarized over the Vietnam War, and over challenges to cultural norms of conformity and consumerism, under a governor facing a Republican primary election the next day (he lost), National Guard troops fired live ammunition into a crowd of students protesting the war, killing 4.  No one has ever faced criminal charges for these murders.

Does anyone think it’s appropriate for police to be firing guns of any kind at demonstrating students?

What are the limits to their use of force? Or to their deployment at all? Are we being set up for another Kent State massacre, this time in response to demands for affordable education?

Paul Bloom is an activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.