Dear Chancellor White,
In light of the events of January 19, we felt it appropriate to issue our own letter asking for your response to some urgent questions. We are citizens of this community—students, faculty and staff—demanding answers for the troubling events of last Thursday.
Whose decision was it to militarize an unarmed, nonviolent protest on our campus on January 19, by calling in police in riot gear to threaten and assault a crowd of protesters who continually insisted loudly that their protest was intended to be peaceful?
Who decided that this peaceful protest was an “unlawful assembly,” as the police repeatedly announced over the PA system? On what basis was this determined?
Why did you (or whoever else was responsible) not come out to address the crowd and explain this decision? Did you hear them chanting, “Tell us why”? What makes a large crowd of dissatisfied people demanding dialogue with their representatives on their own campus an “unlawful assembly”? And don't those whose actions are unilaterally deemed “unlawful” deserve an explanation as to why?
Your Friday letter states that the behavior of a “small number of individuals... briefly and peacefully shut down the Regents meeting... Their actions, while making a point to disrupt and while remaining nonviolent, nonetheless prevented others from listening to the discussion by denying public access to the remainder of the meeting.”
If, as you acknowledge, the actions of that small group of students were nonviolent, why and how would the actions of a handful of disruptive students cause the entire protest to be deemed “unlawful assembly” and justify the threat of force and arrest against all of the other students and faculty members gathered?
Why has nonviolent disruption, assertiveness and defiance been equated with aggression, violence and threat on our campus, when Gandhi himself called for nonviolent disobedience to be forceful and confrontational, and when, from a first amendment perspective, “disruptive” and “dangerous” are two very different things?
You say in your most recent Friday letter that you needed to “use our police to ensure the safety of meeting participants as well as the majority of protest participants.” But is there any evidence that any of the protesters were threatening the Regents, rather than simply using disruptive—and potentially embarrassing—tactics to make their demands visible?
Even if it is still true that police presence was required, why did the police have to be armed with violent equipment, as though they were facing dangerous criminals? Could they not simply have been sent to observe and monitor the proceedings; why did they have to be armed to the hilt, and then escalate the situation with the threats and use of potentially lethal force?
Who, in this situation, was the real “threat” to our campus’ security: a group of dissatisfied but unarmed students and faculty chanting “peaceful protest!”, or a group of highly-armed police threatening to and willing to use force through batons, tear gas and rubber bullets (which have been known to kill people in other conflicts)?
Your Friday letter expresses concern about officers who “received minor injuries, as barricades were thrown at them and signs used as weapons.” But what we see in the following videos are police in full riot gear shoving unarmed students and faculty with batons, and then firing paint-filled bullets at them. Please see, among MANY others, the videos and reports of injuries to students and faculty from police violence:
What we see on the following video clips are the protesters seizing the police barricades and trying to place them between themselves and the police. We do not see anyone using the barricades to attack the police. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT9VOYR7cMo&feature=related) Meanwhile, the following video shows a protester being hit with rubber/paint pellets. That student is clearly in a great deal of pain and saying that he is having trouble breathing. He is carried away by a handful of other students who call out for water and help: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7tB2LmsbfI&feature=related, skip to 4:30)
You can also see from the videos that the response of the protesters was to chant, “peaceful protest, peaceful protest!”
How can rubber bullets and batons be considered a justifiable response to disruption and embarrassment that is not in any way physically dangerous? What evidence do we have that it was the protesters, and not the highly-armed and militarized police force, who escalated the violence?
What accounts for the tight, 1-minute so-called "comment period" provided at the Regents' meeting? Students and faculty were demanding an open forum that was NOT controlled by the Regents' own inadequate vision of what constitutes democratic dialogue and transparent decision-making. In light of this, why should their demand to be heard at such a forum be construed as a threat, justifying such escalated violence?
When fully-armed police are sent in to threaten, shove and physically assault unarmed people who are already frustrated, resentful and angry at being criminalized and having lost their voices, will this not inevitably escalate the level of violence?
So, in conclusion, Chancellor White, we are seeking answers for what happened on January 19, but are also deeply concerned with the implications of these events for the future of free speech on our campus. What makes a crowd of unarmed, peacefully dissenting people “unlawful” and “dangerous”? Who gets to decide, and on what basis? And, what forms of free, nonviolent speech and expression of dissent can be considered “lawful” on our campus, so that they are not met with met with exaggerated militarization, and the escalation of institutionally-authorized violence?
Concerned Members of the UCR Community