Students are questioning their rights to free speech after a Public Records Act request revealed the existence of a group of UC Davis administrators and staff charged with monitoring campus protests.
While members of the group, the Student Activism Team, view it as a way of ensuring student safety and promoting free speech, others deem it a breach of trust as well as an infringement of first amendment rights.
“Students have a right to know the entire story here,” said Cres Vellucci, a member of Sacramento County’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) board of directors, in an e-mail interview. “Who was monitoring them, and why, and if any files have been created relating to student organizers and participants. Students have the right to organically organize and conduct free speech-protected activities, free from interference and surveillance.”
“Having a presence at student protests isn’t anything new,” said Griselda Castro, assistant vice chancellor of Student Affairs and team organizer. Realizing that the budget crisis would likely stir more action this year, administrators recruited volunteers and formalized the team in August of 2010.
“Since we’ve had a more formalized team that got a little more training, we’ve not had any arrests on this campus, unlike other campuses,” she said. “We have not stopped activity. We have not infringed upon students’ rights to express themselves.”
According to Castro’s most recent list, the team is made up of 21 members, all with Student Affairs. There are also 13 resource staff members for additional support.
“I know that the staff at Student Affairs sees themselves as student advocates; they don’t see themselves as there to stop an event or to infiltrate, absolutely not,” Castro said.
The team provides a presence at campus actions, accompanies students as they move, monitors the situation and updates a team coordinator until the action ends, according to a document dated Nov. 1, 2010 detailing the team’s protocol. The team is not to stop student activism, stop police response, speak on behalf of the administration or make decisions about campus response. Documents also reveal correspondences between team members and the police about planned protests and unfolding campus action.
Eric Lee, junior political science major, said that the Student Activism Team makes administrators look like hypocrites.
“How can you be claiming to advocate for student rights when you have no idea what our struggle is?” he said. “Students are suffering – they can’t get into classes, they can’t find jobs, they have to drop out because they can’t afford tuition, they can’t graduate on time, when they do graduate they can’t find employment … [The administration] is essentially laughing in our faces.”
Lee was one of the first students to see the public records and exposed the team in a guest opinion in The California Aggie. He is in a private group on Facebook of over 100 people interested in pursuing action against team organizers.
“We are going to keep pressing the issue until people know the truth and understand the [administration’s] hypocritical position in regards to student rights and activism,” Lee said.
Vellucci has been in contact with Lee and other ACLUs in Northern California. He said the documents suggest that the Student Activism Team is an effort to not just monitor, but control student action.
“And despite claims by the administration suggesting it is trying to protect students, it appears those claims are more to mask the true intentions … to spy – because that is what it appears to be no matter how much the administration attempts to spin it – on students participating in constitutionally-protected activities,” he said.
Ultimately, Lee wants members of the team to resign, publicly announce that the team has dissolved and pledge to never form an activism response team again.
However, the administration has no such plans. At the Center for Student Involvement website, three documents are now available for download detailing the Student Activism Team’s protocol and intention. However, these documents are drafts, Castro said, and will likely be updated at the beginning of fall quarter.
Still, some students accuse the administration of being too covert about the operation. The team’s existence wouldn’t even be known if it weren’t for a Public Records Act request, Lee said.
“We didn’t make a public statement because we’re evolving … we’re not even on the same page about what the name should be yet,” Castro said.
The team’s name was changed several times, once called the ‘Activism Response Team’ and ‘The Freedom of Expression Support Team,’ as revealed by various drafts of protocol and training guides.
Volunteer training sessions stressed honesty, Castro said. Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Fred Wood said that there was no reason to lie about identity, because members of the team are already recognizable figures on campus.
For example, at the March 2 Day of Action, Andrew Wells was present. The conduct coordinator of Student Housing told students who he was and that he was there as part of a team to keep everyone safe, Castro said.
But police, who are not on the team, did not have that training. UC Davis Police Officer Joanne Zekany was dressed in plainclothes at that protest and lied to about her identity.
Zekany told students she worked in Briggs Hall, but protesters noticed the officer disseminating information about the students’ plans. John Meyer, vice chancellor of Administrative and Resource Management, called it a misjudgment.
“In the police department’s mind, their rationale for that is, ‘one officer in a crowd.’ You don’t want to draw attention to that officer,” he said.
Meyer, who is in charge of the police’s involvement, acknowledged that Zekany’s response was inappropriate. He said officers will not hide their identities in the future.
“I think we’ve resolved that and I think it’s a fair issue to raise. But to think that police are trying to infiltrate, you know, they’re just trying to keep the roads closed when they need to be closed,” he said.
The Student Activism Team contacts police when something unlawful occurs – this includes blocking traffic or occupying a building. When protesters headed toward Chancellor Linda Katehi’s house on March 2, the team notified the Davis Police Department because the action moved to the city’s jurisdiction. The police need to know what’s happening in advance so there can be traffic control, Meyer said.
“Success is when there is no police action … [but] police do have to be available should it become necessary,” Meyer said.
However, police presence creates the opportunity for violence, Lee said. The only time that protesters have been injured on campus was at the hands of police officers.
“Unconditionally, if the sole intent is to protect students, then they would not have armed officers present,” he said.
The team’s argument for safety is hollow and has no backing, Lee said.
Being in contact with the police can help keep students safe, Castro said. Police and other parties are calmer when there is a known staff presence.
For example, in a past protest students marched into the dean’s office of the College of Letters & Science. Unlike Mrak Hall or Dutton Hall, the dean’s office isn’t used to seeing an invasion of protesters.
“That triggered 9-1-1 calls,” Castro said. “But by us being able to communicate with the police, they know that we’re there, and then it’s a different type of response.”
Similarly, in an Oct. 7 protest, protesters marched to the US Bank in the Memorial Union. The Student Activism Team warned the bank tellers ahead of time, who then closed up. Even with this warning, one of the tellers ended up going to the hospital due to her reaction.
“She crushed her fingers, likely from closing drawers too fast … She did not get hurt because of the students. She got hurt by being scared and overreacting,” Castro said.
Castro said the US Bank situation was the only time the Student Activism Team has done any sort of intervention this year. During last year’s March 4 protest, which culminated at the I-80 freeway entrance, Sheri Atkinson, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center, was called to negotiate with the police. It ended in the release of a student who would have gone to jail otherwise, Castro said.
“I have always and will continue to support student activism on campus. I believe it is an important and valuable medium for student voices,” Atkinson said in a statement.
But the issue remains that the Student Activism Team is essentially using public money, Lee said. Public money is used to pay team members’ salaries, and those members are spending time monitoring student action instead of doing their normal jobs.
“Our money is going toward officials to spy on us. And spying is by no means a stretch, it’s what they’re doing,” he said.
Wood said that he understood this argument, but that team members are volunteering. They do spend some time during standard working hours watching rallies, but they also remain at these rallies later than working hours without getting additional pay.
“I’m really proud of the team… they’re dedicated to the students and they work long hours,” he said.
The formation of the Student Activism Team says that students aren’t trustworthy and it’s indicative of privatization, Lee said. It sets a dangerous precedent given the grander context of the state of higher education in California – University of California’s tuition increases and plans to accept more out-of-state students as well as dramatic enrollment cuts to the California State University system and California Community Colleges.
“In the beginning stages of an administrative ploy, the first steps will always seem mild,” he said.
Administrators maintain that the team does understand the students’ struggles in these tough economic times. That’s why they’ve been more lenient since last November’s 32 percent fee hike. Meyer cited the overnight protest in Peter J. Shields Library last year, where instead of forcing protesters out, the administration chose to keep the library open through the night.
“You don’t volunteer [with the team] because you’re trying to shut students down,” Meyer said. “You’re volunteering so that you can give them a toolkit, so that they can not just communicate here on campus, but in their life.”
The Student Activism Team is comprised
of five organizers – Castro, Associate Vice Chancellors of Student
Affairs Lora Jo Bossio and Emily Galindo, Director of Campus Unions
Brett Burns and Anne Myler, associate director of the Center for Student
The volunteers are Wells, Kristee Haggins, training
director with Counseling and Psychological Services, Ayesha Alcala,
graduate Financial Aid assistant, Jeff Austin, programmer with Financial
Aid, Joyce Cleaver, Financial Aid data analyst, Katy Maloney, director
of Financial Aid, Don Dudley, associate director of Student Judicial
Affairs, Sara Hawkes, math skills specialist with the Student Academic
Success Center, Kelly Cole, academic coordinator of Student Housing,
Chuck Huneke, assistant director of Student Housing, Nathan Moses,
leadership coordinator of Student Housing, Josh O’Conner, conduct
coordinator of Student Housing, Lisa Papagni, assistant director of
Student Housing, Branden Petitt, associate director of Student Housing,
Amanda Seguin, conduct coordinator of Student Housing and Anthony
Volkar, orientation coordinator of Student Housing.
The team also
has additional resource staff. They are Atkinson, Steven Baissa,
director of the Cross-Cultural Center, Peg Swain, director of the
Women’s Resources and Research Center, John Ortiz-Hutson, Student
Affairs coordinator of African American and African Studies, My Diem
Nguyen, Student Affairs coordinator of Asian American Studies, Alma
Martinez, Student Affairs coordinator of Chicana/o studies and Judith
LaDeaux, Student Affairs coordinator of Native American studies. There
are also six community advising network counselors – Carolyn Bordeaux,
Roxana Borrego, Jezzie Fulmen, Paul Kim, Renee Lopez and Romana Norton.
JANELLE BITKER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.