Why did UC Berkeley police target a protester?

February 8, 2018

University of California (UC) police waded into a labor protest on February 1 to tackle and arrest UC Berkeley dining hall worker David Cole. The protest was called by AFSCME Local 3299 to draw attention to low wages and victimizations by the administration. Cole, who is African American, was apparently singled out by police after a driver, who had been threatening to drive through protesters gathered in the street, pointed him out.

On February 7, nearly 150 students, community members and university workers gathered for a lunchtime rally called by AFSCME in defense of Cole, followed by a picket line in front of an administration building on the UC Berkeley campus. Speakers from the Black Student Union, Black Staff and Faculty Organization (BSFO), UCB faculty in the African American studies department, plus representatives from Local 3299 and the Alameda County Labor Council all spoke of the persistent presence of police on campus. The day before, BSFO held a 50-person rally in front of UC police headquarters to protest Cole's aggressive arrest.

KT Corr, a UC Berkeley student and member of the Undergraduate Workers Union, talked to Jeremy Tully about what happened at the AFSCME protest.

CAN YOU tell me about what happened? Why was AFSCME picketing on campus?

I'M NOT a member of AFSCME, so I'll just give you what I know: The career workers in AFSCME, meaning full-time campus dining hall and other service workers, have been battling the university administration for a while now over a contract proposal that they didn't agree with.

The one-day picket was to draw attention to that and raise awareness around other issues, like the need for higher wages and better working conditions and to hold people accountable who have been called out for sexual assault.

YOU SAID that you aren't a member of AFSCME yourself, but you've been involved in labor struggles on campus. Can you give some background about that?

I'M PART of the Undergraduate Workers Union, or UWU, which was really galvanized last year. During the spring semester, we went on strike several times and organized to get the union on its feet. It's been very successful--we got a lot of new members in a very short amount of time.

Dining hall and service workers at UC Berkeley rally for a fair contract
Dining hall and service workers at UC Berkeley rally for a fair contract (AFSCME 3299 | Facebook)

UWU wanted to go to the picket line to support AFSCME, because they have been supporting us. Last spring, when the UWU was getting off the ground, AFSCME supported us by wearing our pins on their hats at work, and we wore their pins on ours to show solidarity.

CAN YOU talk about the picket itself? What were people doing and what did it look like?

IT WAS on Thursday at 11 a.m. at the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph, next to campus. There were about 40 of us, both students and career workers, walking in a circle in front of the entrance to Sproul Plaza, holding picket signs with a picture of Martin Luther King on them.

By noon, our numbers had more than doubled, and we had to split into three circles to make room for everybody. It was very well organized, and we got a lot of attention: people were driving by and honking, and students were watching and recording.

We got a few people who reacted negatively or walked through our circle, but it was mostly sympathetic. A lot of people were looking at us and trying to understand why there was such an age range--which gave us a chance to show that students were standing with the career workers.

LET'S TALK about David Cole. I know he works on campus, but what else should we know about him?

DAVID COLE is a 51-year-old career worker who works in the kitchen at a campus dining hall called Crossroads. I worked with him there last year.

He's been working there for years and has seniority status in the kitchen. He has no problem helping people or advising students on the best ways to operate in the kitchen or serve food. He's a very loud presence--everyone knows who he is.

He showed up at the picket and was chanting, "Give us our money, this is exploitation" and "I work so hard for my money, and the UC is just stealing our wages." At first, I was thinking, "That's just David being David," but he didn't stop. He just kept going and going, and I realized how serious he was about why he was there. He felt very passionately about his position at the picket.

WHAT HAPPENED during the incident where he was arrested by the UC police?

BY ABOUT 12:30, the picket had spilled into the intersection. We wanted to be in the street to try to gain support and show that our voices will be heard.

Things escalated very quickly: people started honking and yelling, and some people got out of their cars and started yelling in our faces. There was a guy in a really fancy car threatening to run people over so that he could get through, and David was yelling, "Stop, don't run people over, stop hurting us!"

The guy kept threatening and eventually pulled up and got out of his car. At the same time, several other people were being shoved, so there we several altercations happening at the same time. The situation was very chaotic.

The man went over to the cop who had been watching the picket the whole time, and the cops then found David and grabbed him. A group of picketers swarmed around, but within seconds, two more cops jumped on top of David. They pushed his face into the ground--that's why he was bleeding.

We started chanting "Brutality!" and "Shame!" and "Let him go!" Even more cops showed up, trying to form a shield between the protesters and David. Eventually, they picked him up and escorted him, while he was bleeding from his face, to the police station inside of Sproul Hall.

The driver who talked to the police and several other drivers had been extremely aggressive: shoving and yelling and throwing things. The protesters tried to be peaceful by just surrounding the car so it couldn't move. I find it interesting that the cops chose to attack David instead of stopping the drivers from hitting people with their cars.

SO THE police didn't intervene when this driver or any of the other drivers threatened people with their vehicles?

EXACTLY. I'M 100 percent positive that at least one cop watched the entire thing. He was the one who first attacked David Cole, and he was nowhere to be found during the 10 minutes or so that people were actually hitting protesters with their cars.

SO DAVID was pushed to the ground--there's a video of it. He sustained an injury to his face and was bleeding. What happened next? My understanding is that he was taken to the hospital and then to jail. Is that right?

THEY TOOK David to the underground police station in the bottom of Sproul Hall. There were three cops in full riot gear linking arms, so we couldn't get through to enter the police station. So we all swarmed around the entrance, asking where they took him and if he was going to get medical attention.

We tried to give the cops our side of the story--that David didn't do anything wrong. We asked why they didn't do anything about the people driving. The cops refused to give us any answers and were dismissive, so 20 or 30 stayed there for a while.

We never got to see David. Another cop came out of the police station and listened to our point of view for a little bit, but eventually went back into the station when we asked him why we weren't being given any information. We asked who they were protecting and things like that.

At 6 p.m., there were still students waiting on the grass outside to hear what had happened to David. It was a daylong effort by students, union members and communtiy members to hear what had happened to him, which we didn't find out until that night.

HAS DAVID been released, and has he been charged with anything?

HE HAS been released. I read in an e-mail sent out to students by the administration that he was charged with vandalism and one other charge.

AFSCME is circulating a petition demanding that the charges be dropped and that the actions of the UC police be investigated. The UWU is following their lead and trying to organize as well. Activists across campus and in the Bay Area are organizing solidarity actions.

After David was arrested, there were three more speakers at the rally at Bancroft and Telegraph. They all had great things to say, but none of them mentioned that someone had been arrested. I think they should have said his name, and drawn attention to his situation and the fact that one of the workers--particularly, a Black workers with seniority on campus--had been arrested. It was a large part of the events that day.

Casie Stone contributed to this article.

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