Open letter distributed at California Hall pickets

by Gina Patnaik, Aaron Bady, and Chris Miller

I sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 at UC Berkeley and extend my sympathies to any of you who suffered an injury during these protests. As chancellor, I take full responsibility for these events and will do my very best to ensure that this does not happen again.       

  –Robert Birgeneau, November 22, 2011

(A deafening silence)

–Robert Birgeneau, today

When we saw students and faculty being beaten on the steps of Sproul Plaza last November, we were horrified. And when Chancellor Birgeneau dared to suggest that the victims of police had deserved it — because, as he put it, linking arms was “not non-violent” — he became the much-deserved subject of national ridicule, to such an extent that he retracted the statement, claimed he had been out of the loop, publicly apologized, and took full personal responsibility. He also declared that the students who had been arrested would have amnesty from student conduct proceedings and instituted multiple police review proceedings to ensure that such police misconduct does not occur again.

Now, four months later, our community is being forced to relive this violence, and the Chancellor is nowhere to be found.  The Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley is pressing charges against at least 9 of the students and faculty who engaged in public protest on November 9. These charges range from “malicious obstruction of a thoroughfare” and resisting arrest to battery of a police officer. They have been issued against several people who were arrested on November 9th but also against others who were not arrested. While all the charges are unwarranted, both the timing of the charges and the fact that visible activists have been particularly targeted raise a variety of very disturbing questions.

First and foremost, where is Chancellor Birgeneau? After accepting responsibility for the events of November 9th (see above), he remains conspicuously silent while Alameda County prosecutes his students and faculty. It is not nearly enough for the chancellor to do nothing: he has an affirmative responsibility to safeguard the free expression of political dissent on his campus.  Chancellor Birgeneau must publicly denounce all criminal charges and obey the UC Berkeley Faculty Association’s demand that he accept financial responsibility for legal fees incurred by those charged.

Secondly, to what extent have the UCPD and the UC administration facilitated the prosecution of its UC community members? In theory, the UCPD protects and serve campus values — of which free speech must be one — but in practice, UCPD routinely invokes mutual aid with outside police departments, invites riot cops onto our campus, and cooperates with outside agencies that have no necessary commitment to campus values. Several of the students singled out by the DA have a history of involvement in student activism.  Given this, it’s hard not to see the charges they now face as anything but a coordinated attempt to undermine public protest by intimidating the very student activists who are speaking out in defense of public education.

In the immediate aftermath of the November 9th protests, the UCPD solicited — and received — the medical records of protesters who sustained injuries at the hands of the police. These records were released by the UC Berkeley Tang Center and local hospitals without the knowledge or consent of the patients; they were then used to identify protesters. The fact that medical records can be turned over to the UCPD in order to incriminate victims of police violence raises serious questions about the ethics of medical care on the UC-Berkeley campus.  As the many videos taken on November 9th show, students and faculty were beaten simply because they were there.  When evidence of physical harm at the hands of the police is immediately read as culpability, our university has effectively criminalized protest.  By funneling confidential records to the UCPD and outside bodies, our medical system corroborated this view. What university policies allowed such breaches of confidentiality to happen?

We, the UC-Berkeley community, implore the UC administration to take responsibility for shielding the democratic values of free speech, political engagement, and socio-economic diversity upon which public higher education in California is premised.  Such responsibility starts with a frank assessment of the UCPD and UC administration’s role in the Alameda County DA’s actions.  We demand that the UC administration do what it always should have been doing: protect the right to protest on our campus.  Criminal charges against students and faculty must be dropped so that the work of restoring our university system can continue.

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