Berkeley City Council could weigh in on charges against Occupy Cal protesters

Levy Yun/Staff
Levy Yun/Staff

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Next week, Berkeley City Council could join the growing chorus of voices speaking out against the criminal charges filed against Occupy Cal protesters.

Public outcry has surrounded the charges against demonstrators from Nov. 9, and the City Council could become the newest critic of what one council member described as adding “insult to injury.”

At its meeting Tuesday, the council will vote on whether or not to send a letter to District Attorney Nancy O’Malley asking that she drop the charges, as well as letters to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and UCPD Chief Mitch Celaya asking that they request that the district attorney drop the charges. As part of the resolution, the council will also endorse the Berkeley Faculty Association’s petition asking Birgeneau to request that the district attorney drop the charges against the protesters.

Thirteen protesters involved in the Occupy Cal demonstrations at UC Berkeley on Nov. 9 have been presented with criminal charges, including UC Berkeley associate professor of English Celeste Langan. The charges include resisting arrest, battery on an officer, remaining at the scene of a riot and obstructing a person’s free movement in a public place.

All 13 had arraignments this month, and all except Langan were issued stay-away orders from the campus.

Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, who authored the legislation along with Councilmember Max Anderson, both said that after several protesters were subject to police who used batons against them on Nov. 9, pursuing criminal charges against many of the same protesters is unfair.

“Given that some of these individuals were beaten and were the subject of excessive use of force by police in response to the demonstration, these charges should absolutely be dropped,” Arreguin said.

The use of force by police on Nov. 9 was widely condemned, and a review of police procedure that day has been launched at the campus and university level. An additional, recently-released operational review found that the police use of force was warranted but criticized the campus administration’s response to the event.

Videos have circulated from Nov. 9 showing police using batons against students, which resulted in broken ribs and other injuries. But, UCPD spokesperson Lt. Eric Tejada said he hopes the council is not relying on a snippet of what happened and will instead form an “educated opinion of what actually transpired that day.”

“Hopefully, they didn’t base their opinion based on 90 seconds of video, because the D.A. certainly reviewed all the evidence,” he said.

Soon after Nov. 9, Birgeneau granted amnesty under the campus code of student conduct to all students who were arrested and cited that day solely for attempting to block the police.

However, the chancellor has yet to say openly whether he thinks the criminal charges should be dropped.

After the faculty petition was started, Birgeneau and campus Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer did send a letter to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office that drew attention to the faculty petition — which has garnered hundreds of signatures — but did not take a stance on whether the administrators want the charges dropped.

Christine Rosen, associate professor at the Haas School of Business and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, said she hopes that that a letter from Berkeley City Council compels O’Malley to drop the charges, especially after Birgeneau’s letter already pointed out the conflict between his grant of amnesty to the protesters and the pending criminal charges.

“The problem hasn’t gone away,” Rosen said.

Rosen said she thinks that as a body of elected officials, the City Council could have a significant voice in appealing to O’Malley, also an elected official. Arreguin and Worthington also maintained the value of the council officially taking a position the issue.

“Collectively, it has an impact in showing the district attorney and the university that … we don’t believe that people who are exercising their free speech rights should be the subject of pending legal charges,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “It (creates) a chilling effect which limits people being able to express their free speech rights.”

Soumya Karlamangla is the city news editor.