(CN) – Twenty-four students and activists sued UC-Berkeley administrators and police for the violent response to an “Occupy Cal” protest in November.
The protesters say they “were forcefully jabbed in their chests, stomachs, and groins, clubbed in the face, yanked by their hair, and beaten while lying on the ground.”
Attorney Monica Smith told Courthouse News that the police actions during the Nov. 9 protest were motivated in part by the fact that UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau felt “vulnerable and exposed” by the protests, which called attention to tuition hikes and the so-called privatization of the university.
“The evidence of the lawsuit will show why he needs to resign,” Smith said.
The 43-page complaint in Oakland Federal Court details a violent crackdown on students who had set up tents in front of Sproul Plaza, a popular site used for student protests since the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s.
After a rally and march, around 400 students began a “general assembly” where they “voted overwhelmingly to establish an encampment,” according to the complaint.
Officers left the scene after trying to seize tents, but later that afternoon a number of police in riot gear attacked the encampment, according to the lawsuit.
“The police forcefully attacked students, pushing with the broad side of their batons, jabbing students with the ends of their batons in their stomachs, chests, ribs, legs, backs, and groins, using overhand strikes and headlocks, and yanking people out by their hair and arresting them,” the complaint states.
That evening, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Harry LeGrande read a statement to the General Assembly, saying protesters could stay on Sproul Plaza but would not be allowed to have tents or sleeping bags and could not cook food or sleep.
The General Assembly discussed the proposal and voted to keep the encampment.
After 9 p.m. that night, officers “forced their way to the protest tents with even more brutality than in the afternoon,” the complaint states.
The raid created a panic among the protesters, as officers secured the protest area and destroyed the tents, according to the complaint.
“Over the course of the violence, students hurried to Sproul Plaza from across campus to defend the protesters,” the complaint states. “Over two thousand people amassed in Sproul Plaza, and the police ceased their attack.”
The UC-Berkeley administration initially defended the police actions, but on Nov. 22, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau – the lead defendant in this case – issued a public apology for his role in the use of force.
“I sincerely apologize for the events of November 9th at UC-Berkeley and extend my sympathies to any of you who suffered an injury during these protests,” Birgeneau wrote. “As Chancellor, I take full responsibility for these events and will do my very best to ensure that this does not happen again.”
Smith, who represents the protesters, said “an apology is not enough” and that Birgeneau should “own up to what he did and step down.”
“If he really is sorry, he will resign,” Smith told Courthouse News.
“He needs to say unequivocally and plainly, not ambiguously, that he was wrong, and he needs to pay money to the actual students who were painfully injured.”
In addition to calling for Birgeneau’s resignation, Smith says, her clients want the UC-Berkeley police and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to drop all criminal charges against protesters.
“We think the charges are going to be dropped, but we want to make it very clear and public that they must be dropped,” she said.
Smith, with Detroit-based Scheff, Washington & Driver, also is an attorney and organizer with the United for Equality and Affirmative Action Legal Defense Fund, which fights for public access to education, among other issues. Co-counsel is Ronald Cruz, with Scheff, Washington & Driver’s Oakland, Calif., office.