More Than 100 UC Berkeley Faculty Sign Letter Condemning Police Response to Protests

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 07:42:00 PM

Calling for a prompt, “impartial and comprehensive” investigation into police brutality that allegedly took place on the UC Berkeley campus during the Nov. 20 Wheeler Hall occupation, more than 100 faculty members signed an open letter to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau Wednesday condemning the violence. 

The letter came a day after Birgeneau issued a statement promising that a review panel consisting of faculty members and students would conduct an independent probe into Friday’s police actions. 

“We, the undersigned faculty, are writing to voice our strenuous objection to the use of unwarranted violence by the police forces enlisted by the University of California (UC) at Berkeley to patrol the student demonstration outside of Wheeler Hall on Friday, November 20th,” the letter begins. “It is now abundantly clear that in addition to UC Police, there were squads from the City of Berkeley and Alameda County, and that some of these police forces acted with undue violence at various points during the day, most conspicuously at mid-day and then again in late afternoon when they used batons against students and a faculty member. In some cases this occurred to defenseless people who had already been pushed to the ground, among them several who sustained injuries to hands, heads, and stomachs, and were forced to seek urgent medical care. These abuses of police power were captured on video recordings and in photographs, corroborated by numerous witnesses. They have now been widely circulated on the web and throughout the national and international media. We will send you a composite of those websites and testimonies under separate cover.” 

The letter, signed by many professors who found themselves in the middle of the protest, either negotiating the occupiers’ release with the university administration or trying to protect their students from police action, goes on to say that there is ample proof that the students were “acting in a nonviolent manner when their civil rights were abrogated by police harassment and assault.”  

"Such instances of unprovoked police brutality would be appalling and objectionable anywhere, but we find it most painful for these events to have taken place on the UC Berkeley campus, given the important tradition of protecting free speech that you, Chancellor Birgeneau, have only very recently defended,” the letter said. “Hence we regard with dismay and astonishment your euphemistic reference to this Friday’s violence: ‘a few members of our campus community may have found themselves in conflict with law enforcement officers.’ There is no doubt that our students and colleagues did find themselves subject to unwarranted and illegal police brutality. It is therefore incumbent on the Chancellor of UC Berkeley to condemn such actions unequivocally and to make sure that such actions are subject to comprehensive review and disciplinary action.” 

Although protesters repeatedly asked for Birgeneau to be present at the scene to witness police behavior last Friday, Birgeneau did not appear. 

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jonathan Poullard was outside Wheeler Hall talking to students and police. 

Faculty members demanded that the university assume “full accountability for the actions of the police forces” who were present on campus last Friday, “making broad use of available testimony on the part of victims and observers, including photographic images, video and personal narration of those at the scene in order to establish a clear record of the facts.” 

“We ask as well that you speak directly and honestly to the students about what has happened,” the letter said. “They are entitled to know that the university does not condone acts of police violence such as these; as of this writing, they have received no word from the administration acknowledging accountability for such appalling actions. Indeed, the administration was markedly unreachable on Friday, when faculty were most pressed to take on a mediating role.” 

Faculty members also asked Birgeneau to widely publicize current university protocol governing police misconduct at demonstrations and find out whether “protocol was followed or abrogated on Friday.”  

They said the administration should also clearly outline what kind of disciplinary actions would be taken against police officers who were found guilty of assault. 

Finally, faculty members asked the administration to issue a public statement reconfirming the university’s commitment to protect free expression and assembly for students on the Berkeley campus. 

“Friday’s failure to do so is a most painful public display of how far UC Berkeley has strayed from its historical responsibility as a national and international institution pledged to rights of free speech and assembly and to the ideals of social justice,” the letter concluded. “It is surely difficult enough to see our reputation as an excellent and affordable university jeopardized through budget cuts and fee hikes. Must we see as well the dissolution of the ideal of protecting free speech for students for whom the very future of their education is at stake?”