Police break up UC occupations

November 23, 2009

Rachel Cohen reports from the University of California Santa Cruz, one of a number of campuses where protesting students and staff were confronted by riot police.

POLICE, ACTING on orders from university and state officials, cracked down on protests and occupations at campuses across California, in a clear escalation of force against the growing movement of students, staff and faculty protesting severe budget cuts and tuition increases.

The last police attack of the weekend, and one of the most violent, came early Sunday at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). Officers clad in riot gear forced their way through lines of protesters at an occupation of Kerr Hall, the central administration building on campus--and began manhandling demonstrators. One faculty member, who was acting as an observer, was injured when he fell 12 feet to the ground while trying to avoid the dangerous crush at the top of a staircase.

The UCSC occupation and other actions that continued through the weekend began as part of three days of strikes and protests in the University of California (UC) system and other schools.

While the UC Regents--the governing board of one of the nation's most prestigious state university systems--met to approve a 32 percent fee increase, student took part in coordinated actions starting November 18. The demonstrations were anchored around a two-day strike by the University Professional and Technical Employees union at UC Berkeley and UCLA.

Student occupied Kerr Hall at the University of California Santa Cruz
Student occupied Kerr Hall at the University of California Santa Cruz (Indybay.org)

At six schools--UC Berkeley, UCLA, San Francisco State University, UC Davis, CSU Fresno and UCSC--students took over buildings to reclaim space and send the message that they won't tolerate an exorbitant fee increase, coming on the heels of cuts, layoffs and furloughs, and an increasing reliance on private funding and free-market logic in place of public financing and support.

The UC Regents met in Los Angeles, and the UCLA campus was host to hundreds of protesting students who came by bus from across the state to take their message directly to the board. When news reached the crowd outside that the Regents had affirmed the 32 percent hike, students took direct action to obstruct the Regents' exit, linking arms and surrounding the building, and later sitting down to block their vehicles leaving campus.

Students also took over Campbell Hall, renaming it "Carter-Huggins Hall" in honor of two leaders of the Black Panther Party, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, murdered there in 1969. While the occupiers left the building peacefully, protesters across the campus faced police attacks. Fourteen people were arrested in all.

At UC Davis, 250 people occupied an administrative center at Mrak Hall on Thursday. Though UC Davis spokesperson Claudia Morain told the Sacramento Bee that students inside Mrak Hall "ordered pizzas, played bongos and were well behaved," police suited up in riot gear before entering the building and making 52 arrests. Students cooperated with the arrests, but the next day launched a second occupation of Dutton Hall, another administrative center. They dispersed peacefully at the end of the day.

At UC Berkeley, during the early hours of Friday morning, around 40 students barricaded themselves in Wheeler Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Shortly afterward, hundreds of students began to gather outside in support of the occupiers inside Wheeler--by noon, the crowd had grown to between 1,000 and 2,000.

Riot cops from the Berkeley, Oakland and UC Police Departments, as well as Alameda County Sheriff's Department, arrived and began aggressively pushing back the crowds of students with batons and rubber bullets. Dozens of students were injured by police, some suffering broken fingers and bruising.

Despite efforts by some faculty members to persuade students to disperse, the crowd remained committed to staying put as long as the Wheeler Hall occupation continued. The police and campus administration refused to negotiate, and at around 5 p.m., a SWAT team arrived and broke through the barricades to arrest the students inside Wheeler.

The continued presence of thousands of students outside forced police to release the occupiers into the crowd. However, three of the occupiers face bogus felony burglary charges, and are due to appear in court on Monday.

Throughout the days of protests, students at far-flung universities across the country sent messages of support and thanks to the student occupiers in California. On Saturday, students in Vienna, Austria, marched on the U.S. Embassy to protest police violence used against students in California.

THE DEMONSTRATIONS at UCSC began on Wednesday, November 18, with an occupation of Kresge Town Hall. The decision to occupy was nearly unanimous among the crowd of 400 protesters who gathered for a General Assembly. Kresge Town Hall is a large auditorium and ideal for mass meetings, but it rents for about $50 an hour, so students took over the space to claim it as a free center for organizing.

The following afternoon, students gathered at a General Assembly in the occupied auditorium voted to expand their occupation by taking over the campus' central administration building Kerr Hall.

On Friday, Kerr Hall's new occupants selected seven key points from a list of 30 previously adopted demands--among them, keeping resource centers such as the Women's and Ethnic Resource Centers under the management of individual directors; protection for undocumented students and workers; a freeze on layoffs of campus employees and restoration of reduced hours for custodians; and guaranteed funding for graduate students who lost teaching assistant positions and undergraduates who lost work-study positions.

The next day, a group of protesters began negotiations on these demands with representatives of the administration, but more than eight hours of talks yielded only a tepid response from administrators--and as students debated these terms, UCSC's two top officials personally rejected even these terms. Student negotiators were informed that the administration would issue a formal warning to occupiers, after which police would be called in.

Inside Kerr Hall, students gathered to fine-tune plans for responding to the police. Following several days and nights of occupations, many participants were exhausted, and anxieties ran high, yet students carried on a clear and concise discussion.

After about 45 minutes, the protesters voted by a narrow margin to barricade doors from the inside and maintain a human barricade on the patio outside. Inside, 40 to 50 occupiers planned to peacefully sit in, waiting to be physically removed from the building. Outside, over 100 students and faculty said they would observe the police action, taking photographs and video to help ensure the safety of those who were willing to risk arrest.

NO WARNING ever came from the administration, and occupiers waited through what must have been the coldest night of the winter thus far. Minutes after 5 a.m., police cars arrived at the base of campus, and students and faculty assembled again. As we waited for the sun to rise, we discussed the range of consequences we might face.

At a quarter to 7 a.m., teams of riot cops rolled into view. By the dozens, they marched down the hill toward Kerr Hall. Stopping some yards before the patio outside the building, police declared that any assembly in the building, on the patio or in "the surrounding area" was unlawful. Protesters and observers alike were given 3 to 5 minutes to disperse.

Protesters lined up along a concrete staircase on the opposite side of the patio from police. The police then advanced in a line that was able to break through the human barricade of students who had linked arms. Once the cops got through this line, they fanned out behind the seated students and began to push them toward the staircase.

Yelling "We are peaceful, how about you?" we watched as police used batons to shove a dense group of students and faculty observers along the railing of the stairwell, producing a dangerous crush at the top of the staircase. Several people were forced to climb over the railings and jump to safety. One of these, UCSC anthropology professor Mark Anderson, fell about 12 feet to the ground below while trying to escape.

While police above continued to grab, push and prod protesters with their batons, a handful of cops surrounded and inspected Anderson. Incredibly, the police then brought dogs onto the patio to further intimidate protesters. Minutes later, police lingering in front of the doorway to Kerr Hall made a show of tearing down a large banner that read "Raise hell, not costs," congratulating themselves with high fives and pats on the back.

Some 20 minutes later, Anderson was finally taken by ambulance to a hospital where he could be checked for spinal injuries. He was released later in the day.

But long before Anderson was carried off on a stretcher, police set to work breaking through several entrances to the building to get at the occupiers still inside.

After a period of anxious waiting, police showed signs that they intended to bring the occupiers out through a back entrance. No sooner had half the protesters split off to observe the removal of the occupiers in back than word reached us that police had resumed use of their batons to stampede students the rest of the way down the stairs.

While the tumult continued outdoors, inside Kerr Hall, police began to back down. They first invited occupiers to leave through the front entrance and be arrested one by one. When those inside rejected this proposal, the cops offered occupiers a decision between leaving voluntarily through a back door and being arrested. All the occupants opted to leave, and did so without being detained or identified. So the occupation ended without arrests.

After the occupiers emerged from the building, the crowd began to move, marching back to Kresge Town Hall for a rally.

"I'll be honest," said one participant at the open mic at Kresge "About 15 minutes before the cops arrived, I was ready to split." But then, he said, as the cops arrived, he saw dozens of fellow students stand their ground. "That's what made me stay," he said.

Despite the enthusiastic mood following an occupation that ended with no arrests, protesters also agreed to several concrete next steps. Students organized a collection to support Mark Anderson.

Some participants also underscored the fact that while the protests of the past few days were a new step forward for the movement, we still have a long way to go in the struggle to defend public education. None of the concrete demands raised by the occupiers have been met. Future actions must continue to engage broader forces among students, the faculty and staff.

As protesters agreed to reconvene in Kresge Town Hall--a space that will no longer be occupied, but which Kresge College Provost Juan Poblete is working to secure as a free meeting space for future discussions--the applause ringing through the auditorium showed that no one is ready to quit the struggle.

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