Spring 2010 Newsletter: Chapter Joins Public Education Struggle

Irving Velazquez, NLGSF Intern and Marc-Tizoc González, NLGSF boardmember

Student protests gained steam last year as budget cuts started to hit home on public university campuses. The austerity plan of school officials leaned towards cuts like eliminating courses, laying off lecturers and staff, and pay cuts through job furloughs. In November 2009, the UC Regents agreed to raise tuition 32 percent on top of the increase that was already made earlier that year. There were also plans to enroll more out-of-state students (who pay higher tuition).

In response, a statewide student social movement erupted through sit-ins, rallies, study-ins and events. At UC Davis, students occupied the administrative building Mrak Hall, where 52 were arrested; in San Francisco students occupied a SF State University building, resulting in 33 arrests; at UC Berkeley, three different actions resulted in over 100 arrests. By March 4 of this year, protests spread far beyond university campuses as thousands took to the streets in Oakland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Davis and multiple other locations. Charges were generally misdemeanors or infractions, though there have been some felony charges. Most of the 2009 cases were not pursued by prosecutors.

Reporting on the defendants from a San Francisco State protest, NLGSF board member Tim Phillips stated: "the prosecutor did not file any charges against the arrestees facing misdemeanor charges. Two of the arrestees facing traffic citations have a first appearance scheduled in traffic court in late April. It is our hope that their charges will also be dismissed."

Building occupations were particularly dramatic at UC Berkeley, where students occupied Wheeler Hall twice, first as a day-long occupation and then again as part of what they called "Live Week," (in contrast to what the week is often referred to – "dead week" – when students have a week off from classes to prepare for final exams). Students said that this time they were appropriating the building for educational purposes rather than occupying it. After a week, police raided the building before dawn arresting dozens of people inside without any warnings to disperse. Later that night, activists converged at a previously scheduled concert by the Coup's, Boots Riley, among others. The show ended, reportedly, due to the police patrolling at the event. In reaction to the day's events, a group of protestors marched from the show and rallied outside of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's on-campus home mansion. While details are unclear, some of the activists allegedly caused some property damage, prompting Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to denounce their acts as a "type of terrorism."

John Viola, a criminal defense NLGSF attorney and co-chair of the Demonstrations Committee represented the Wheeler Hall arrestees and stated, "Wheeler Hall was a non-violent protest and the people from Friday were upset; therefore, they were responding to mass police violence."

Viola stated that although eight were arrested for felony crimes near the chancellor's mansion, no one was ultimately charged by the Alameda County District Attorney; however, investigations are ongoing and prosecutors have up to a year to press charges against these individuals. Indeed, only one UC Berkeley student from the several actions has had misdemeanor charges pressed against him; NLGSF Demonstrations Committee attorneys have offered representation, and the matter is set for pretrial hearing in the coming month.

The Bay Area chapter has sent legal observers to these actions, met with activists to talk about their rights and what to expect, is representing activists in court, and organizing support for students facing disciplinary actions, in particular under the UC Berkeley Student code of Conduct. Longtime NLGSF members like Dan Siegel, Anne Weills, José Luis Fuentes and Stephen Rosenbaum, along with TUPOCC co-chair and NLGSF board member Marc-Tizoc González, have been working with NLG-affiliated law student activists at UC Berkeley, led by Boalt law student Nathan Shaffer, to develop a mass defense approach to the Code of Conduct investigation and charging process – an administrative law process that is fraught with due process violations and may give rise to court challenges.

"It's the support NLG has given the students and communities that is empowering us to take direct action and without support from the NLG, we would be less confident and have a lot of harsher charges," said student activist Aaron Buchbinder.

Download a pdf copy of the newsletter to see more of this issue, including:

  • Legal Observer Reportback: March 4th Day of Action for Public Education
  • Welfare Mass Defense Project: How Mass Defense Is Used in Alameda - County To Provide Effective Legal Support for Welfare Recipients
  • Q&A: Phil Hutchings on Activism and the Role of Lawyers
  • Meet Our Interns
    and more!