Saturday, November 21, 2009

Eyewitness Account of Wheeler Events on Thursday

Hi Everyone,

Since I spent a fair amount of energy on Wed and Thurs trying to record for FBF incidents of police violence against protesters at UCLA, and accompanied Ananya as a faculty observer on her second trip into Wheeler Hall (ie when the occupiers were cited and released), I thought I should describe what I saw between 5pm and when the last of the occupiers was released. This report will be pretty unadorned – like Ananya, I’m also trying to process everything that happened yesterday, and I’m still quite tired this morning.

Ananya has already described the meeting between the Chancellor and various admin, the ASUC leadership, and several faculty (there were about 10 of us). I’ll just add that at that point, there were really only 2 options for how to proceed: (1) book the students on site and escort them out of the building to the barriers, or (2) try to load them onto vans and take them off-site to book them, and release them from there (there was also brief mention of jailing them over the weekend, but that was never really pursued). While the chief of police Mitch Celeya preferred option 2, those of us who had been at the barriers all day and were worried about the increasing tension there after a series of violent encounters btw students and police (more on that below—I arrived at Wheeler at about 9.30am), impressed upon him and the Admin that this option would likely escalate the struggle outside the building. The ASUC senators and faculty were fully in agreement on this, and the Chancellor and Celeya agreed to go for option 1.

There was a brief discussion of the point of exit for the occupiers – Celeya wanted to release them to the east side of the building, but the conditions on the barriers there were especially bad. I started receiving text messages from a couple of students in the Solidarity Alliance who were on that side around 5pm that the people outside the barriers there were becoming increasingly agitated, both with police, and with other students who were trying to keep things calm. I had advised the students I knew on that side of the building to leave and come around to the west side, where things were tense, but less violent, as the east side was clearly getting to the point of being out of control. No one I knew after that point was up there any more. Celeya was convinced after stories like this to release the occupiers to the west side.

Celeya escorted Ananya, Will Smelko (ASUC President), and me into the second floor of Wheeler. The occupiers (there were about 40) were lined up against the wall in the north corridor, sitting with their hands behind them in “plastic tie” restraints. Everyone was unharmed and safe – as Ananya reported, the group was committed to non-violent tactics, and so had not resisted arrest, which contributed to their safety. The vast majority were students, although one was a reporter from “Democracy Now” who was not; he had on a press pass that was clearly displayed around his neck. Some looked genuinely scared, some were in fairly good spirits. A couple looked like the restraints were not just uncomfortable but painful, so the officers removed and recuffed those individuals at a looser setting. Several of them asked about their belongings (which they were allowed to take with them as they left the bldg), and about 2 or 3 (I now forget the number) of their fellow occupiers who had been arrested earlier in the morning and taken away. They were especially worried that a couple of them seemed injured. The UCPD in Wheeler did not know where they had been taken, but they guessed the Berkeley city jail where they were booked and released.

The officers set up a classroom to process the students, and took them in 4 at a time to do so. The plan was to escort them outside in groups of 5. I’d say it took about 30-40 min from the time we arrived for the first group to be processed and ready for release. At that point, there was a hold-up of another 10 or 15 minutes while the police outside were changed over – the Berkeley city police were replaced with Oakland police. During all of this, and between reassuring the students inside and asking questions for them of the UCPD officers, I was texting the students I knew outside (especially Cynthia Nava and others in Solidarity) of the plans to bring everyone out, and asking them to spread the word at the barriers to calm people out there (more on this too below).

It seemed to take forever to get the first batch of occupiers outside. A HUGE cheer greeted the first two groups to be released. (I will just mention that the experience of being inside the barrier when “OUR UNIVERSITY” is shouted by a thousand people is somewhat unnerving, even when you’ve been one of the people shouting it yourself. The lieutenant leading the escort, who had been a Chicano Studies major at Berk himself and had also participated in campus protests during that time, did say to me “now you know how that feels.” Not in malice, not sarcastically, but trying to impress upon me how intimidating the crowds are).

It took perhaps 30 or 40 minutes to get everyone outside. The last group to be escorted out included 2 protesters from the barriers who had been arrested earlier in the day. Of these two, one seemed fine and unmarked, but one had a large bruise on one cheekbone of perhaps 2” in diameter that was badly swollen. I asked him a couple of questions on our way out to try to assess how badly he was injured (he was able to speak fairly easily, but was clearly in pain. He didn’t seem dizzy or concussed — he was walking well — but I do hope he sought medical attention to be sure.

Ananya and I were so tired after we got the last group out, that we just walked straight past the barriers to our cars and went home. We were both just fried at that point.

So that’s my account of what happened after 5pm. A few points about what was going on at the barriers earlier that day:

· It was tense and scary out there. As many have mentioned, there were several incidents throughout the day of violence at the barriers between the police and the protesters, where the police used their batons on students to keep them behind the barriers. These erupted on various sides of Wheeler about every hour on the hour. These were the most frightening moments by far, and as one colleague put it, did make it seem like we were very close to riot conditions. I asked students at various points to write me with their stories of what they experienced, but there were faculty there too who could perhaps explain it in more detail. I will say this: I did not witness first-hand any of the inciting moments of the barrier altercations – I only witnessed the barrier incidents once they were already in progress. I have no idea what events sparked them, and have heard many different stories. Having said that, I also have big questions about what we’re doing using batons, which can do real damage to people, on unarmed students. Many of us have that question, and I do think we need to keep asking it.

· The students are scared. The students are scared. The students are scared. Around one to two thousand of them just witnessed police in riot gear clubbing their fellow students with batons. As I write this, I’m sure the student rumor mill is in full gear; I just hope the stories aren’t getting too wild. I do wonder whether the Chancellor needs to make a careful statement of some kind, although I’ll admit I’m not sure as to the nature or content of that statement. Perhaps about how students who wish to participate as witnesses at events like this should behave to stay safe. But it seems like we can't not say anything to them. Silence seems like a mistake at this point.

· The police are scared. Celeya related to Ananya and me while at Wheeler how unnerving it was to hear students on the barriers escalating the rumors about what police were doing to the occupiers inside – that they had used rifles, that they had tasers, etc. The fear on both sides seems to drive the escalation of tensions and violence. An obvious point perhaps, but one worth making nevertheless.

· Many of the students don’t trust any of the faculty. Not all of them, but a good chunk of them. Even when we were outside trying to tell them about the attempts to negotiate with the occupiers, we were corrected, shouted down in some cases, argued with. Apparently, even students who were relaying my texts about how we were coming out with the occupiers to the crowd were met with anger in some cases. It does seem like some of this anger and distrust is built up from what happened on campus here on Thurs (when students were removed from Bears Lair even when they had permission to be there) and at UCLA. They’d all seen the same images of UCLA that we had, and some of them had been there themselves. Apparently, the way the Regents got out of Covell after the fee hike vote was by putting out a story to the crowd that there was a woman in the building who had been injured and was near death, and needed to be taken away in an ambulance. So the crowd felt tricked when it turned out otherwise. At least that’s the story on what happened. In that context, any stories coming from us about the occupiers walking out free and unharmed were met with extreme suspicion

· We’re on pretty shaky ground here. I hope fervently that things on campus will calm down over the weekend and into the end of term. It feels like the Thanksgiving break comes at a good time for helping to that end. But I do worry about what will happen next semester, and in the coming couple of years, when the economic picture of the state and the country will continue to be grim. So the big question coming out of this is, to me, what will the campus do next time something like this happens? How can the communications between admin and students and faculty be strengthened, so that we don’t have a situation where no one seems to be dealing with one another, which just makes the situation on the barriers worse?

Shannon Steen


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