A case that began April 9 with the dramatic arrest of 79 pro-Palestinian protesters at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall ended quietly Friday morning with a brief court appearance, $2,900 in court fees and all charges dropped.
“It’s a huge victory,” said Seth Chazin, lawyer for the defendants.
“It’s a vindication of our First Amendment rights and an indication that the university shouldn’t have filed charges in the first place,” added Linda Sherif, another lawyer for the “Wheeler 79.”
One of the 79 Wheeler Hall protesters was never arraigned, but the other 78 faced charges of obstructing or intimidating an employee of a public agency, which falls under the trespassing code. Seven also faced charges of resisting arrest and one, 23 year-old student Roberto Hernandez, was accused of misdemeanor assault and battery for allegedly biting a UC Berkeley police officer.
Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle Eastern Affairs for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council, defended the university’s actions, saying it followed procedure.
“We feel very strongly about the right to free speech,” he said. “At the same time, we also believe in following the rules of the university and remaining in compliance with the law.”
Hoang Phan, a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine, the campus group that spearheaded this year’s Wheeler Hall takeover, said SJP is considering a lawsuit against the university for harassment.
“They defend the right to free speech... but not for certain political positions and not for certain political groups,” Phan said.
The April 9 takeover capped a day of protests against Israeli occupation of Palesinian territories and the University of California’s investment in Israel.
Activists occupied the foyer of the Benjamin Ide Wheeler Hall on campus, demanding to meet about divestment with UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl and the UC Board of Regents.
The event commemorated the April 9, 1948 massacre, by Israeli paramilitaries, of Palestinian townspeople in the village of Deir Yassin.
Last year, police arrested 32 pro-Palestinian protesters, including 19 students, who occupied Wheeler Hall and made similar demands.
Deputy district attorney Stuart Hing said his office made the right decision late in May when it offered to drop all charges and find each defendant innocent.
“I don’t think it was worth going to trial on,” said Hing. “Something had to be done, but going all the way was not something that either side wanted.”
Hing said the court fees – $25 for each defendant facing trespassing charges, $50 for those charged with resisting arrest, and $750 for Hernandez – are punishment enough.
Earlier this week, lawyers for the defendants argued that the fees were administrative and should not be construed as fines. Chazin said Friday that the fees cannot be considered fines since the charges were dropped, but acknowledged that they were meted out in accordance with the charges each defendant faced.
Shaffy Moeel, an SJP member, said she was pleased with the outcome. Moeel said the resolution is “in keeping with the Berkeley tradition” of respecting free speech. She said she hoped the case has helped to raise awareness among taxpayers that their dollars are funding the Israeli military in the conflict with Palestinians.
Forty-one of the protesters arrested were UC Berkeley students and they all face possible disciplinary action from the university, ranging up to a year-long suspension.
Chazin said he hoped the outcome of the legal proceedings would discourage the university from moving forward with student discipline.
“A DA’s case is separate and apart from the student conduct cases,” replied UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore. “We’re proceeding as we have been.”
Gilmore said letters informing protesters of the student conduct charges they face would go out Friday or early next week. Students will then have the opportunity to settle the matter in an informal meeting with staff or go to a full hearing.
Gilmore declined to comment on the District Attorney’s decision to drop the criminal charges.
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