Crackdown on UC Berkeley Student Protesters

By: Linda Lye

Last fall UC Berkeley police cracked down on student and faculty protesters involved in Occupy Cal demonstrations with baton blows and other serious force. Now, UC Berkeley demonstrators are facing criminal prosecution by the Alameda County. The circumstances are fishy and raise questions that demand answers.

The Alameda County District Attorney is planning to prosecute at least 11 students and one faculty member in relation to the Occupy Cal protest in the fall. Thirty-nine people were arrested that day, and the DA plans to prosecute 4 of the 39. The DA has also decided to charge another 8 students who were not even arrested that day.

We don’t yet know how the DA came to its decisions about whom to prosecute, or what role, if any, the University played in recommending individuals for prosecution. But we do know that the newly-charged individuals have been active leaders in the student protest movement and have provided testimony in the University’s own internal reviews of protest issues. We also know that at least 2 of the students sought medical treatment at a University health facility, which then handed information about them to the alleged assailant, UCPD.  

These criminal prosecutions are nothing short of chilling. By singling out prominent and visible leaders of the protest movement, they chill students and faculty in the exercise of their free speech rights. They also chill potential witnesses from coming forward and assisting the University with this and future investigations of police misconduct. And they chill injured members of the Berkeley community from seeking medical treatment for physical injuries. Even if cooperating with the University's investigation or seeking medical treatment did not ultimately contribute to the decisions to prosecute in this case, most rational people would avoiding sharing information knowing that others who did so got into trouble, and having your assailant contact you after you go to visit your doctor is just plain creepy.

Confidence in the University was deeply shaken after it chose to respond to peaceful student protesters on November 9 with baton-wielding police clad in riot gear. The current criminal prosecutions serve only to further undermine confidence by raising questions of whether the University singled out active leaders and requested that the District Attorney select them for prosecution, and whether the University, rather than taking steps to protect witnesses cooperating with its investigations or patients seeking medical treatment, instead exposed them or otherwise made them vulnerable to criminal prosecution.  

The public needs to understand the University’s role, if any, in how those currently charged were actually selected for prosecution. To restore public confidence in the University and its handling of campus protest, full transparency is essential. We sent the University a Public Records Act request to shed more light on the issue.

Linda Lye is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.