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Wheeler Hall Arrests and Attack on Chancellor’s House Raise Questions

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday December 17, 2009 - 08:34:00 AM

An attack on UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s house and conflicting reports as to why students were arrested at Wheeler Hall Friday, Dec. 11, have added a new twist to ongoing protests against university budget cuts. 

Student organizers of Live Week—a week-long “open occupation” of Wheeler Hall where students tried to create an open university by holding talks, forums and music shows all day—condemned the 4:30 a.m. arrests during which UC police locked in 66 protesters, cited them for trespassing and later took them to Santa Rita jail. Almost all were reportedly released later. 

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said university officials were compelled to arrest the protesters because they reneged on their committment to be non-disruptive by “publicizing plans for an unauthorized all-night concert featuring guest artists and a DJ—an event that threatened to disrupt final examinations that are scheduled to take place in that same building tomorrow.”  

But some protesters contend that university officials knew all along that they were going to make the arrests Friday. 

“Why not issue a dispersal order before making the arrests? Why bust in at 4:30 in the morning?” asked Marika Iyer, one of the 66 students arrested and a participant in the Nov. 20 Wheeler Hall occupation. “They knew about this all along. A lot of us were in there to study. That was the only building on campus that was open.” 

Mogulof dismissed claims that the arrests were pre-ordained and said that the decision was made late Thursday afternoon. 

“We were going to do everything possible to avoid confrontation,” Mogulof said. “In this day of texting and Twitter and Facebook, a warning would have served as an invitation for all kinds of people to come running to the scene. We wanted to protect the right of the students not taking part in the protest and protest academic interests.” 

Mogulof admitted the arrests have cast light on the need for “important and necessary conversations about the path going forward.” 

“Legitimate dissent is both valued and valuable,” Mogulof said. “The students are talking about what they are going to achieve and where do we go from here.”  

Friday’s arrests come in the wake of the Nov. 20 Wheeler Hall occupation, which led to arrests and allegations of police brutality. More than 100 UC Berkeley professors signed a letter condemning the action. The UC Berkeley administration promised to set up an independent review panel to investigate allegations of police brutality.  

The ACLU of Northern California sent a letter Dec. 11 to UC Berkeley Chief of Police Mitch Celaya and Chancellor Birgeneau inquiring why some protesters had been taken to Santa Rita jail rather than issued citations.  

The letter, from ACLU staff attorney Michael Risher, urges Celaya and Birgeneau to ensure that campus police “are deciding whether to make custodial arrests based on proper facts, and not based on any intent to chill or prevent constitutionally protected expressive activities or to retaliate against demonstrators for their speech.”  

Risher said that the ACLU was concerned that the actions taken by UC police might violate the protesters’ constitutional rights.  

“We do not know the details surrounding today’s arrests, but it is troubling that so many demonstrators who seem likely to have committed nothing more than misdemeanors are nonetheless being jailed,” Risher’s letter said.  

Things took an ugly turn around 11 p.m. Dec. 11 when eight people were arrested after protesters stormed UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s house on the north side of campus, smashing windows, lights and planters.  

A statement released by UC Berkeley the following morning said the group, which was made up of about 40 to 70 people, shouted “No justice, no peace,” and “threw incendiary objects at the house, which could have caused a major fire.”  

Mogulof said the group also threw garbage on the porch. He said the chancellor, who had been sleeping, was awakened by his wife, that they called UC police, and when officers showed up, the crowd dispersed.  

Police arrested eight people and took them to Santa Rita jail, where they were charged with rioting, threatening an education official, attempted burglary, attempted arson of an occupied building, felony vandalism, and assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer.  

The action was condemned by Birgeneau, faculty, the organizers of Live Week and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who described it as terrorism. 

Marika Iyer said that although there were some students from the Wheeler protests involved in the march, “none of the students is interested in going into any kind of detail about what happened,” because they didn’t have a clear enough timeline for what took place that night.  

The Alameda County district attorney’s office is still reviewing evidence against the eight protesters. No one has been charged yet. 

Professor Daniel Perlstein, an associate professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, was in his office near the chancellor’s house at the time of the attacks. He did not witness the protesters’ actions, but heard crashing sounds and yelling. Perlstein said, in an e-mail message addressed to “the Bay Area community” and sent to local media and to city and state lawmakers, that he believed “that the university administration not only set the stage for a violent turn in protests by acts which have repeatedly raised tensions and undermined belief in its good will, but actually engaged in most of the violence that has occurred.” 

Mogulof said that although Perlstein was entitled to his opinion, “that kind of logic would put us on an endless downward spiral.” 

“All the suggestions that we have been lying is contrary to all the conversations we have been having with student mediators,” he said. “We want to have a dialogue. We don’t want to shut down dissent, that’s not what we are about.”