20 November 2011

Regarding the events at UC Davis

On November 18, 2011, students and faculty of the University of California Davis joined in protest of tuition increases, and to stand in solidarity with the victims of alleged police brutality that took place at UC Berkley on November 8, 2011, as well as the worldwide Occupy movement. The students participating in the November 18 protest are seen seated in an open area on campus, covering a section of sidewalk and peacefully assembling. The police, wearing riot gear and carrying clubs as well as pepper spray and tear gas guns, were dispatched by UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi when protesters refused to dismantle tents set up in the quad the previous day. The protesters formed a circle around the law enforcement officers and sat down, linking arms and refusing to move. According to UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, the protesters were putting the officers in danger, stating "There was no way out of that circle. They were cutting the officers off from their support. It's a very volatile situation."

The protesters, many of them with their backs turned to the law enforcement officers, proceeded to engage in chants, shouting "You use weapons! We use our voice!" Tensions begin to rise as police are seen preparing cans of pepper spray and communicating via radio. Students, aware of the impending events, chant "Don't you do it!" and begin distributing scarves and bandannas to the seated protesters in an attempt to protect the demonstrators from the impending use of force. Police officers approach the protesters from both sides, and Lieutenant John Pike is seen stepping over the line of demonstrators, turning around to face them, and spraying pepper spray in the face of those seated. Chaos breaks out as the police begin to make their arrests and retreat, followed by the protesters and chants of "Shame on you!" coming from what appears to be hundreds of students. These were peaceful demonstrators.

Alleged police brutality against UC Davis students, November 18

The events of November 18 are not unlike a similar event in the history of civil disobedience in California. In January 2002, The United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (coincidentally the same circuit in which the events at UC Davis transpired) held a hearing known today as Headwaters Forest Defense v. The County of Humboldt in which nine protesters alleged that the use of excessive force was employed against them by the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. (For the sake of brevity, only one of  three similar instances will be mentioned in this article, the complete facts of the case can be found here). The protesters, speaking out against the logging of ancient Redwood trees, staged a demonstration in which they sat inside the headquarters of the Pacific Lumber Company, and after repeated warnings from the police to leave, the protesters refused. The law enforcement officers then proceeded to apply pepper spray with a Q-tip to the eyelids of the demonstrators and after an hour and "multiple" applications, the protesters were lifted by the police, placed onto stretchers, and carried out of the building, a process that took two officers only six minutes to accomplish.

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office began using pepper spray beginning in the fall of 1997, and its use was to be specifically for "hostile or violent subjects". The events of Headwaters Forest Defense v. The County of Humboldt marked the first use of pepper spray in Humboldt County, the State of California, and the first time anywhere in the country against nonviolent protesters.
Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis and Chief Deputy Sheriff Gary Philip were acquitted in district court on the grounds of qualified immunity, which states that government officials are shielded from liability for civil damages as long as their conduct does not violate specific statutory or constitutional rights.

The appellate court, however, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that Lewis and Philip were not entitled to qualified immunity, and their acts violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the protesters. The United States Supreme Court court granted certiorari, vacating the judgment of the appellate court, and remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court reviewed the case again and reaffirmed its conclusion that Lewis and Philip are not entitled to qualified immunity and the protester's constitutional rights were violated.

The factors that determine the amount of force used by law enforcement officers include the severity of the crime, the immediate safety of the officers as well as bystanders, and whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. In both the cases, the charges against both parties are of little severity. The charges being brought against the demonstrators at UC Davis amount to failure to disperse and lodging without permission of the owner, both misdemeanors. The protesters of Headwaters Forest Defense v. The County of Humboldt and November 18 at UC Davis did not endanger the immediate safety of the officers and bystanders were at no risk whatsoever, conflicting with the quote of UC Davis Police Chief Spicuzza. The officers demonstrated their belief that they were in no danger, turning their backs to the crowd on multiple occasions. Also, in both cases, the protesters were seated, obviously posing no flight risk. Furthermore, the protesters were separated and handcuffed within minutes, although undoubtedly expedited by the use of force, the law enforcement officers could have easily accomplished this without it.

When Police Chief Spicuzza stated "there was no way out of that circle", was that truly accurate? Were they, in fact, "cut off from their support"? Did the peaceful demonstrators create a "volatile situation"? One witness testimony stated the irritant caused a woman to cough blood for forty-five minutes after Lieutenant Pike began spraying. Was this an appropriate and justifiable use of force?

The acts of Sheriff Lewis and Chief Deputy Philip were not entitled to qualified immunity.

The acts of Chancellor Katehi, Police Chief Spicuzza, Lieutenant Pike and the UC Davis Campus Police are now under investigation.

Using the "Human Microphone" tactic, the protesters were able to deliver one final message as the police retreated from the quad.
"This is how they react to peaceful assembly. We will resume conversation Monday at noon. Join our strength."
I look forward to the evolution of the Occupy Davis movement, stand in solidarity with the members of Occupy Davis, and hope the UC Davis administration and police force handle further confrontations legally and peacefully.

I know the subject matter of this blog is usually much more lighthearted, but this was something I felt that I needed to post.

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