Chancellor Birgeneau must be held accountable for violence against students

Please forward to UC faculty, grad students, and friends

Dear UC Faculty and Friends,

There are few words that can describe the horror of police violence against students on UC Berkeley’s campus Friday November 20. Chancellor Birgeneau’s dispatches to the campus community, most recently those today pre-empting a critical outrage to what transpired, are disgraceful and must be met with a forceful response by UC faculty and students. What started as aggressive and unjustified provocation by UCPD was soon supplemented by the vicious behavior of officers from Berkeley Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriff. As students peaceably assembled in support of those occupying Wheeler Hall, Chancellor Birgeneau ordered or approved the deployment of hundreds of police brandishing their batons to beat the spirit of ownership out of them.

Chancellor Birgeneau characterizes the role and presence of armed and aggressive police officers that engaged in violence against students on this campus as positive and necessary in resolving the situation. When I arrived on campus early in the morning as a supportive alumnus, two UCPD officers attempted to ram a metal barricade through a crowd of students I was in — without announcement, notice, or even a chance to move out of the way. Students had no choice but to push back in self defense to prevent injury to themselves and their peers. Yet Chancellor Birgeneau says that the situation “ended peacefully,” and thanked the police for their allegedly positive role.

On at least two later occasions students at the front of barricade lines were threatened with batons thrust into their chests, stomachs, shoulders, and backs. Berkeley Police Department officers once again violently confronted students, placing barricades on police lines. Their blows rained down on the students at the front line, who had absolutely no opportunity to follow police instructions to move because the crowds were too thick. Apparently the officers did not care about this fact or did not understand it because they struck student after student, marks on whose bodies are still apparent today — even as Chancellor Birgeneau announces the situation “ended peacefully.”

A graduate student’s fingers were maliciously destroyed by an officer who struck her with a baton for placing her hand on the barricade. She requires reconstructive surgery, as after the beating her fingers were left hanging by a thread of flesh. And yet Chancellor Birgeneau claims that the student protests ended “peacefully.”

At least one undergraduate student was shot by an officer with an unidentified projectile. There is a mark on his stomach today, but Chancellor Birgeneau claims that the student protests ended “peacefully.”

I saw one camera man threatened by a police officer who screamed: “if you’re close enough that my baton can hit you, I will hit you!” And yet Chancellor Birgeneau says that the police “did very well under difficult circumstances” and that the situation ended “peacefully.”

Students who intended nothing more than to sit-in on their own campus to confront imminent issues were met by the Chancellor’s police officers who showed nothing but disrespect, violence, and brutality. In some areas these violent acts were more prevalent than others. But in all spaces the police presence was overwhelming; a University campus was transformed into a battle ground under police authority. UC Faculty must move to hold Chancellor Birgeneau accountable for endangering the safety of students by exposing them to violent police forces and completely mishandling and misunderstanding the nature of student protest actions on this campus.

Faculty must lead an effort to collect student testimonies and anecdotes about the police violence of the Friday Nov 20 protests. Those mentioned above are only those witnessed first-hand by myself or by people I know personally. Surely there are countless others instances to be documented and for which the Chancellor must be held accountable.

As the Chancellor characterizes the unreasonable presence and activity of police officers on campus as a faithful attempt to restore some sort of “normalcy” to this threatened and beleaguered campus, several clarifications are in order. The students on campus Friday were not rioters. The police presence neither in fact nor in aspiration offered safety or protection to the student body. Police were likely not justified in any use of violence against students yesterday. Chancellor Birgeneau did not resolve or contain the situation. His actions have only highlighted how out of touch he is with the student protesters. On whose behalf he ordered or facilitated the deployment of hundreds of armed police officers on campus is unclear — but it was certainly not on behalf of the thousands of students assembled to achieve a degree of control over their own education and fate yesterday.

I hope you will forward this letter to other faculty and that action can be taken soon to hold Chancellor Birgeneau accountable, to conduct credible inquiries into student interactions with police, and to adopt a faculty statement against the deployment of non-UCPD personnel against students on this campus in the future. In addition to students’ limbs, something has been broken, and Chancellor Birgeneau’s cover-up will not fix it. Corrective action must be taken, and faculty are in the best position to do this.

Thank you, sincerely,

Yaman Salahi

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"Nothing so tires a person as having to struggle, not with himself, but with an abstraction." - Jose Saramago, All the Names