Police action at campus protest provokes student criticism

A week after student protestors attempted to block a freeway at UC Davis, questions remain about what actually happened in the clash between protestors and police. The group of about 250 students mobilized in support of education funding and access. They advanced through two skirmish lines of police on Old Davis Road before being stopped. The confrontation resulted in a number of minor injuries as police physically beat back protestors who tried to advance past the third and final skirmish line approximately 30 yards from the freeway on-ramp. The question of Taser use

A week after student protestors attempted to block a freeway at UC Davis, questions remain about what actually happened in the clash between protestors and police.

The group of about 250 students mobilized in support of education funding and access. They advanced through two skirmish lines of police on Old Davis Road before being stopped. The confrontation resulted in a number of minor injuries as police physically beat back protestors who tried to advance past the third and final skirmish line approximately 30 yards from the freeway on-ramp.

The question of Taser use

Police initially said no Tasers were fired at the protest, but a number of eyewitnesses said they heard and saw Tasers being used. Students distributed photos and videos that they said proved that a Taser was in fact activated.

Natalie Nadimi, a senior psychology and sociology major, said she was using her bike as a barrier to cross the first police line.

“There were so many people pushing me, and the police were pushing us, and the bikes were starting to suffocate – and I really felt like I was about to get hurt.”

At that point, a CHP officer used his Taser to restrain her, she said.

“I didn’t realize at first what it was, but then I just kept getting shocked, and finally I just couldn’t move anymore, and I fell to the ground,” she said.

Nadimi said she felt several electric shocks – one on her right arm, one near her ear and one at her chest.

“Right when it was happening I felt like I couldn’t breathe and my heart was beating really fast,” she said.

Raw footage captured by AggieTV shows one California Highway Patrol officer preparing his Taser and reaching in toward Nadimi with it. The video then shows Nadimi falling to the ground and landing on her rear in an upright position.

After reviewing the video, UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza said it was unlikely Nadimi was stunned since her visible reaction did not match what one would normally see after a 50,000-volt current hits a target.

CHP Officer Marvin Williford said one officer drew a Taser after a protestor shoved a bicycle toward him. The officer intended to deploy the Taser, but it malfunctioned, he said.

“It didn’t discharge; it didn’t drive stun; it didn’t deploy its darts,” Williford said.

Every Taser carried by the CHP officers that day had a microchip that recorded the details of its use. According to Williford, the computerized evidence shows beyond any doubt that only one Taser was deployed, and it did not successfully release its charge.

UC Davis spokesperson Claudia Morain said she does not believe the campus administration or CHP are hiding any facts.

“CHP doesn’t really have any reason to cover it up knowing that it would come out, knowing that all those cameras were out there,” Morain said.

James Vitiello, a protestor who was standing next to Nadimi, said he was helping her hold up the bicycle when he heard the click and whirr of a Taser being activated.

“I saw an officer take his stun gun and press it to her neck,” said Vitiello, 26. “I heard the firing sound again, and she fell down.”

To the freeway

While the majority of the crowd continued to advance past the first police skirmish line, a few decided to return to protesting back on campus.

Natalie Nadimi decided that she was not willing to risk injuring herself or getting arrested for continuing toward the freeway.

“I’m willing to get arrested for sitting in a government office, I’m willing to get arrested for making change on campus, but I’m not willing to try and get media coverage, because I think someone dying and getting hit by a car on the freeway is not the kind of media coverage that we need,” she said.

The overriding goal of most of the group, however, was to get on the freeway and stop traffic.

Chuck Parker, a junior international relations major, said there were two reasons for that strategy. The first was to attract attention. “Secondly, it’s very symbolic, in the sense that our education is being stopped; it’s being blocked,” Parker said. “And I think there’s a symbolic message of stopping or blocking these other basic services that we take for granted.”

Parker said education is something too many people take for granted, and he and others wanted to make the point that “business as usual” could not go on.

Chief Spicuzza said police were concerned about the potential for major accidents. The sight of protestors on the freeway could cause someone to lose control of their vehicle or slam on their brakes. If anyone was killed in an accident, the protestors could be held liable for manslaughter.

“The consequences that go along with it – God forbid if one of them or an innocent family was killed – that’s the part nobody is thinking about here,” Spicuzza said.

Parker said he didn’t believe police were concerned about safety.

“I don’t think there was any real danger to the students or motorists – all of that was just justification by the CHP to use the type of force that they did,” Parker said.

Reported injuries

Police used various tactics to deter protestors from advancing across the skirmish lines.

At the first line, situated near the information kiosk on Old Davis Road, police carried Tasers and used metal batons to contain the crowd from moving forward. As protestors broke through the line and continued to advance toward the freeway, police reinforcements arrived and fired pepper balls at the ground.

Once protestors started to push through the third line, a mere 30 yards from the freeway onramp, police began physically battering them on the arms, shoulders, chest and shins to deter them from moving forward.

AggieTV footage shows Parker at the third skirmish line, being bashed repeatedly in the shin by a CHP officer with a metal baton.

“I went to Sutter Hospital to get X-rayed, and I have a bruised bone on my leg; it turned out to be a bruised bone instead of broken, but I was on crutches for three days, and now I’m still limping around on it,” he said.

Pictures from after the event show numerous additional protestors displaying large bruises and cuts on various parts of their bodies. Williford expressed doubt about the motives behind these photos.

“Believe it or not, people actually do things to themselves to make it look like officers did it,” he said.

Kase Wheatley, a first-year civil engineering major, posted pictures of himself at the protest wearing a bloody bandana around his nose and mouth to protect from the pepper ball powder. Wheatley said he was hit in the face by a police baton at the third line, which caused the bloody gash on his lip displayed in the picture.

“I didn’t think it would be anything close to what [the police] reacted with,” Parker said. “They have a lot of tools and methods at their disposal to try and stop people, but to just start beating on people is excessive at best.”

Law enforcement responds

Despite protestor outrage at the degree of force used, police say that they handled the situation appropriately.

Williford said that at the first skirmish line, CHP officers did what they needed to do – including drawing a Taser – to keep the situation under control.

“When people start shoving you with bicycles, there’s a limit where at some point we’re going to have to defend ourselves,” he said. “It was 12 against 200.”

Spicuzza agreed that police were not out of line.

“This was a legitimate response to the force being used against the officers,” she said. “You try to match the force used with the force being put on the officer.”

It would have been different if the protestors weren’t trying to break a police line, Spicuzza said.

“If these kids were just sitting still at La Rue and Russell, and somebody Tased them then, that would be absolutely inappropriate,” she said. “This is not. It’s unfortunate, but it’s not inappropriate.”

Spicuzza acknowledged that getting jabbed with a baton or getting hit with a stray pepper ball can hurt and often does leave people with bruises.

“We’re not looking to hurt anyone here, just to get the point across that you cannot do this. You need to consider the consequences,” she said. “And once they stop, we stop, and that’s exactly we did.”

Williford said he wondered why this story was getting so much attention when no one was seriously injured and there were no mass arrests.

“We could have had a huge mess out there, and fortunately we didn’t,” Williford said. “One person out of all those people got arrested. You got your point across, you got your media coverage, and it’s done.”

The fight continues

When it all boils down, protestors and police both responded to a viable perceived threat; police to the disruption of peace, and protestors to the disruption of a higher education system.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal for 2010-2011 included a funding increase of 12 percent for the University of California and California State University systems. Yet, it also calls for suspending funding for competitive Cal Grant aid to up to 22,500 students.

Parker said that the Mar. 4 protests were part of a long history of direct action in the American political system.

“I think that it’s very important to go to Sacramento, petition the Regents and work the political process – but in protesting, you’re making a direct statement saying that this is affecting me enough to where I’m going to come out here and stand, and face what can be a very uncomfortable situation. You believe strongly enough in something that you’re willing to take that risk.”

JEREMY OGUL and MICHELLE IMMEL can be reached at newmedia@theaggie.org.

UPDATE – March 12, 2010: CHP reverses statement on Taser use at campus protest

11 Comments on this Post

  1. RealityCheck

    @Btsparks – You may hear more than one taser going off, but I haven’t seen any visual evidence anywhere that shows that more than one taser was drawn, and I’ve seen quite a few pictures and video clips from multiple sources.

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