November 1-8, 2006

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UCSC protests

Photographs by Jamie Thompson
The whole town is watching: The protest escalated after students were informed they would not be let inside during the public comment period unless they had signed up prior to the event.

Communication Breakdown

The UC community has yet to recover from violence that erupted at UC Regents meeting

By Laura Mattingly

My father once told me a story of when he was in his 20s watching the news with his own father. Large-scale demonstrations exploded on the UC-Berkeley campus concerning the country's involvement in the Vietnam War. National Guard helicopters circled the campus, ordered to the scene by then-Gov. Reagan. The helicopters sprayed tear gas indiscriminately on the student protesters below.

As my father tells it, my grandfather mumbled at the television, "They deserve it," to which my father replied, "That could be me; I could be down there."

Forty years later, protests continue to sprout up on UC campuses, over issues as varied as wars and tuition increases. And, as in the protest at UCSC two weeks ago marking the occasion of a rare regents meeting, a significant gray area remains when it comes to what steps--if a protest is perceived to be getting out of hand--are necessary, appropriate, effective and ethical for involved law enforcement to take.

In addition to using pepper spray on UCSC students, police took three of the protesters into custody and had charges pressed against them.

Students and professors I spoke to in the aftermath of the protest seemed distraught about what they'd experienced. In the commotion of the day, with so many people present, no one person could be everywhere at the same time, and everyone's account of the day varied greatly. Communication was often strained, intentions got lost, mistakes were made and people got hurt.

"What happened last Wednesday was wrong for so many reasons, and both sides acted out really inappropriately in their own ways," says Dana Trocker, one of the student protesters. "But I feel like the way the media is spinning it, we the students look like the only ones who were violent, when in fact our administration sought violence upon us and created violence in a space that most of the students hoped would be a peaceful protest."

Protesters came to campus that day for many reasons. But the common sentiment provoking students to protest the regents meeting at UCSC's new Humanities Lecture Hall may have been the feeling that they weren't being taken seriously.

"They don't listen to the student input at all," says Janine Carmona, a student protester and member of the organization SAW (Students Against War). Carmona has attended multiple regents meetings, at UCSC, UC-Berkeley and UC-San Francisco, and says she's left each one feeling depressed and humiliated.

Julian Posadas, executive vice president of AFSCME Local 3299, describes the attitude of the regents as "heartbreaking," noting they often stare off into space as workers tell of the poverty they live with daily. The standard public comment period for each meeting lasts 20 minutes and allows each speaker less than a minute to make a statement. No dialogue between regents and students is entertained.

"And so these public comment periods, we get, like, 15 seconds to speak, and people will be, like, pouring their hearts out on these microphones to the regents, and the regents, first of all, half of them won't even be in the room, the other half will be like talking and sleeping, and basically not practicing good listening skills," says Carmone. "And it's just a farce."

Trey Davis, a director of special projects and a UC spokesman, says in response to the student's sentiments, "The regents have worked extensively on improving compensation for all members of the UC community. They are responsive to students and to student groups on a wide range of issues from student fees to campus experience to admissions to financial aid to research opportunities."

Davis says that the degree to which the regents are responsive to student, staff and community concerns should not be gauged by the structure of the public comment period.

"Unfortunately, often people who come to the public comment periods don't understand how they are structured," says Davis. "Every public body in California by law has a public comment period as part of their meetings. Those are periods where the public comes and speaks; they aren't set up as dialogues. The periods are 20 minutes, and that's true for every governmental body."

Davis maintains that there are other situations in which the regents participate in dialogue.

"The regents meet regularly with students at Santa Cruz. One of the regents and I had lunch with about two dozen students representing students of color on diversity issues. We had a very frank round-table exchange that lasted more than two hours. ... Just looking at a single 20-minute period that's designed merely for members of the public to express their views is a little unfair."

pepper spray victim

Sprayed: Students, and later university officials, supplied water to suffering protestors after campus police used pepper spray.

The organization of the protest was, according to Carmona, a collaborative process involving many individuals and student organizations."This is one of the biggest coalitions I've seen of student organizations really getting together," she says, "because we all have issues in common [when it comes to] the regents."

Carmona declined to provide names of any of these organizations for purposes of protection. Many of the students, following their experience at the protest, no longer feel that their safety is of utmost concern to the university.

Many of the students planned to surround the building before the regents arrived. Part of their intention was to protest the structure of the meeting itself.

"We basically wanted to make the regents listen" says Carmone. "We wanted to do something that would really get their attention and really empower the students, whereas the public comment periods are not empowering, and just end up being really depressing. We had an idea that we wanted to stop the public comment period."

Some students hoped that if the protest blocked the buildings, the regents would be more likely to hear their concerns and demands outside the building. Some protesters had no such expectations, and wanted primarily to send their message to other students and to reach the ear of the public and regents by gaining media attention.

"As far as I'm concerned they've already made up their minds on these issues," says Carmone. "So there's no reason to talk to them anymore, and they won't listen in the first place. So the only power that we have as students is this sort of direct way of putting the information out there, and making change. We had a whole list of issues on this big fix-it ticket we had made. We were giving them a fix-it ticket. Like, 'Before you expand you need to think about these problems and fix them.'"

The issues on the ticket that Carmona considers particularly important are the UC's involvement with Homeland Security, specifically with researching and maintaining nuclear weapons, the increase in tuition, the low wages paid to some UC staff, including lecturers and maintenance workers, and the lack of effectiveness in recruiting and maintaining diversity on campus. These were just few points on a long list.

After the building had been surrounded by students for approximately 45 minutes, at first holding hands, and later linking arms in front of the doors, the police broke forcefully through the human wall.

According to some protesters the police officers immediately used pepper spray on the students and proceeded to attack the crowd, eventually dragging three people inside against their will.

According to Liz Irwin, associate vice chancellor of communications, the police broke through the crowd to transport two community leaders out of the building because they had prior engagements to keep. "The crowd surged forward and the community leaders were spit at and struck physically," says Irwin. "I would guess that the police were acting to protect those guests," she says, an account that was confirmed by UCSC police.

Protesters say the officers gave students no verbal warning before physically moving in and using pepper spray.

According to Irwin, speaking on behalf of the UCSC police, "At the same time [that people inside were attempting to leave], other individuals were attempting to force entry into the meeting hall, and of those, three individuals were arrested by police officers. Subsequently, all three were charged with disrupting a public meeting and resisting arrest. One was charged with three counts of battery on a police officer."

"Warnings to clear the doorways and cease attempting to disrupt the meeting were issued for several minutes," says Irwin. "And when the group refused to comply--in fact, continued shoving into the building--police used the least amount of force by deploying the pepper spray to restore order."

Some protesters report being hit with batons.

Following the physical clash between protesters and police, many students were hurt and disoriented, and retreated from the building to wash pepper spray from their faces.

A protester approached UCSC professor Dana Frank, asking her to represent the students in negotiations with administrators. She, along with associate professor of community studies Paul Ortiz and City Councilmember Tim Fitzmaurice, who also teaches writing at UCSC, functioned in this capacity for the remainder of the event.

"The one thing that I wanted to emphasize is that what I took part in was basically working with the students, seeing the students deliberate, and the students, I think, did a great job of really coming to consensus decisions about how to de-escalate the situation, and really negotiated very maturely with the administration," says Ortiz, who after negotiating was eventually allowed into the building to check on the condition of those taken inside by the police.

According to Frank, communication between students and administrators had begun before the three students were dragged inside.

"I think the public is not aware that, when the police violence first broke out, the students were actually negotiating to get into the building and speak to the regents in an orderly fashion as part of the public comment period," says Frank. "A lot of people are saying, 'Why didn't they go inside to express it; why were they outside?' They were actually trying to go inside to participate in the public comment process at the time when all this happened, that's why they were up close by the officers, by the door."

Frank says all parties from this point on worked to de-escalate the situation.

"The students didn't know who had been pulled inside and whether they were hurt or safe. And that was the students' first concern. I can certainly say, they [the administrators] were especially concerned with the regents leaving the building. That seemed to be the highest priority of the administration."

Though Frank declined to make a statement about whether she felt the police's actions were warranted, she does express concern about the use of pepper-spray on campus.

"To the best of my knowledge," says Frank, "this is the first time pepper spray has been used on students at UCSC, and I think it's a really dangerous precedent, and the use of it should be investigated. And I think we need to investigate police violence against students in this situation and how it is that the police became so aggressive so fast. Why weren't other approaches tried?"

"I am very concerned about the report by one of the students that she was kicked after she was arrested. And I am very concerned that they used pepper spray, which was extremely painful to the students. I find that very disturbing," says Frank.

After about three more hours of negotiations and waiting, the regents and officers left the building, and about 45 minutes later, the captured protesters too emerged.

Protesters experienced mixed feelings about the success and failure of the day's events.

"On Wednesday they got some sort of idea about how pissed off people are, how upset, how riled up we are," says Trocker. "One of the problems is that they couldn't hear us because there were so many forces keeping them from hearing us. That building has no windows, they couldn't see us. But what they do know is that there are people who are very upset. That is a tiny victory, I suppose. At least in some way they are hearing that we are mad, even if they aren't hearing what we're mad about."

Frank Nunez, a fifth-year UCSC student, spent the day trapped inside the building along with the regents. He had been there to cover the event for student media.

According to Nunez the regents did not respond openly with anything but mild irritation. They had no way of seeing what was taking place outside. They also had no food and no restroom.

"It was interesting seeing everyone in the raw. ... Everyone was kind of in the same boat, students and us, media, staff, the chancellor--it was kind of a funny group of people. ... I don't think anyone expected it to get to that level. I think everyone was caught with their pants down."

Many protesters, and some staff, hope that despite the redirection of attention during the protest from self-expression to safety, the student's message won't be completely lost.

"I certainly think it's important for us all to listen to the students' concerns in any kind of public expression of what they're trying to convey," says Frank. "Obviously that's why they were there in the first place. And I wouldn't want those issues to get lost in a discussion of police behavior."

Additional reporting by Steve Hahn

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