Recent discovery reminiscent of COLA organizers’ previous, current experiences with policing, drums up motivation to keep movement alive
Graduate students at UC Santa Cruz striking for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) had their picket lines monitored by California police using “friendly force trackers,” VICE News’ Lauren Kaori Gurley reported on May 15.
According to emails from Feb. 11 and 13 that Gurley acquired, police who were assisted by the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) used the FBI surveillance portal LEEP to keep track of social media in order to plan a response to the protestors.
Scott Hernandez-Jason, a spokesperson for UC Santa Cruz, said via email that the VICE story’s headline and lead made unsupported “bold claims.”
“Throughout the strike, UC Santa Cruz police officers were focused on supporting the safety of our community on and off campus and protecting the rights of everyone in our campus community, including those engaged in expressive activity,” he wrote.
COLA activism has gained traction across the UCs since February earlier this year, when UC Santa Cruz graduate students in support of a COLA decided to go on a full “wildcat” strike — one not sanctioned by their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW) 2865. They stopped all teaching, grading and research, gathering at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus to form a picket line and pledged to withhold grades from the classes they taught.
That strike, which started on Feb. 10, ended by May 1.
Only one COLA movement — at UC Irvine — is still on some variant of a wildcat strike. Its organizers are focusing their efforts on what they call a “social welfare” strike, devoting their teaching, grading and labor time to connect students and workers with resources.
In an interview with the Daily Cal, Cal COLA organizer Juliet Lu said that COVID-19 had a major impact on the movement’s ability to physically gather and be active in public spaces.
Though in-person organizing has ceased, the VICE article uncovered concerns around policing that COLA supporters have had since February.
“Cops on campus, COLA in my bank account” has been an oft-chanted slogan for COLA supporters. During UC Santa Cruz internal meetings, external vice chancellor Lori Kletzer said the university spent over $300,000 on riot police.
One fourth-year UC Santa Cruz graduate student who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons said that on Feb. 12, the police were “evidently very excited” to get into full riot gear when they saw the protestors.
“We actually saw them pose for pictures in their gear at one point,” the graduate student said via email. “I think many of us were very angry to see such an unwarranted show of force directed at ourselves and the undergraduates.”
Police arrested 17 people at the picket line. The graduate student allegedly saw the police pick out the supposed leaders of the protest and bruise, bloody and beat them.
“Many of us who were not being brutalized just kept speaking to the officers and asking them not to arrest us — we were protesting peacefully,” they said. “Even so, all of us underwent some degree of pain compliance techniques and were chained around the waist, handcuffed and loaded onto the Alameda Sheriff’s paddy.”
While a video posted on Feb. 12 does not show police beating protestors, it does show police pulling back protestors’ arms and handcuffing them. One person had their head pushed down, though it is unclear if it led to further injury.
Hernandez-Jason said in a previous statement with The Mercury News that the officers repeatedly tried de-escalating the situation, given that protestors were blocking a major roadway.
“Demonstrators locked arms, sat in the roadway and refused to move back onto the university field,” he said.
At a Feb. 20 demonstration where UC Irvine students rushed into the administration building, videos were released showing UC Irvine police using force on students. A black woman unaffiliated with the action was also arrested, according to an email statement UC Irvine’s COLA movement provided to The California Aggie.
Another student, who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, was affiliated with the UC San Diego COLA movement and witnessed what they called “police surveillance/intimidation” at a small town-hall style meeting the movement’s supporters were holding back in February.
“Two UCPD officers were watching us through the glass walls of the meeting room,” they said, though they noted that the meeting was not a protest action.
Emails provided to The Aggie show that UC San Diego COLA organizers reached out to the university’s assistant vice chancellor, Patricia Mahaffey, and proposed a discussion about the police presence.
“Is the administration now going to call [the] police any time we gather as a community!?” one organizer wrote.
Mahaffey responded by saying she was unaware of the police presence and that she did not intend to call the police, though one student said they were unsatisfied despite the response.
After a discussion between her and the UC San Diego police, Mahaffey emailed back saying the police presence at the gathering would be an anomaly and that students were free to hold open forums and discussions without feeling surveilled.
In response to the VICE article, Hernandez-Jason said there was no tracking of students or strikers.
“The department solely used trackers to know the location of on-duty officers who were helping keep people safe,” he said, calling any further inferences “erroneous.”
He added that UC Santa Cruz’s geography — 2,000 acres of hilly land with two entrances — made it vital to understand where officers were located in order to coordinate efforts.
Additional police involvement, according to documents Gurley acquired, came into play once Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) tweeted out his support of the strike on Feb. 19. UC Santa Cruz Police Chief Nader Oweis requested the assistance of the California State Threat Assessment Center (STAC) commander, Eli Owen, to see if Sanders would visit the campus.
STAC is a “fusion center” partly funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Fusion centers gather, share and analyze information that hints at a possible threat and convey that information to state, local and national leadership for threat analysis.
Ken Montenegro, the cofounder of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, called fusion centers “spy hubs.”
“It’s funny to even call them ‘spy hubs’ — they say people are ‘paid to monitor open source intelligence,’ which is really just a cop watching the news and social media,” he said.
Fusion centers began popping up throughout the U.S. after 9/11 in order to facilitate and streamline communication and intelligence gathering between law enforcement agencies at all levels of government.
But their effectiveness has been debated. One major concern of fusion centers is that they have contributed to racial and religious profiling. Seventy-eight prevent of Suspicious Activity Reporting, which allows any citizen or authority to document “observed behavior reasonably indicative of pre-operational planning related to terrorism or other criminal activity,” were filed against non-whites, according to one review collected in Los Angeles.
Montenegro believes the STAC’s involvement in UC Santa Cruz actions highlights the university’s antagonism toward students.
“That really shows surveillance is a form of state violence, deployed against what [government calls] the ‘other,’” he said. “Surveillance of graduate students, who are part of the university community, gives the university a lot of information to use against them: Who are protest leaders? What are they worried about? How precarious are their situations?”
Hernandez-Jason maintained that UC Santa Cruz was only paying attention to the candidate’s publicly posted campaign schedule to plan ahead for a campus visit, given that it would significantly impact the campus and city.
“I cannot speak to any actions taken by Cal OES or other agencies VICE referenced in connection with the strike activities,” he said.
UC Santa Cruz has not addressed the allegations in any public press release.
Supporters of the COLA movement have widely condemned the UC Santa Cruz administration once the VICE article came out.
Frustrations were already high among COLA supporters at UC Santa Cruz, with the university’s Faculty Organizing Group publishing an open letter on May 4 asking the university to halt disciplinary process during the pandemic, citing the example of a graduate student who had already submitted Winter Quarter grades being investigated for temporarily moving those grades off Canvas.
According to the letter, at least 49 students are participating in disciplinary proceedings for strike-related activities.
“These actions traumatize the students involved,” the group wrote. “It is alarming that as we transition to distance learning, the most immediate connection that students maintain with UCSC is through its disciplinary bureaucracy.”
Despite the new information the VICE article provided, some COLA supporters, such as psychology and critical race and ethnic studies double major Alissa Vierra, said they are not surprised.
Vierra said she has already known and experienced the surveillance herself. Having witnessed the police actions on the picket line during the first week of the UC Santa Cruz picket line, she said that made it clear the university wouldn’t play nice.
“The most shocking aspect […] was that it has taken this long for the news to break,” she said via email. “I am suspect of the depth and length the university admits to. There is not a shadow of a doubt to me that they have been and are continuing to surveil and target students at degrees far worse than they will ever admit.”
Another graduate student involved with the UC Santa Cruz COLA movement, who requested to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said they hoped the general public came to understand that the growth of the UC administrative class has come at a mounting cost to academic workers’ survival.
“COLA signifies a moment when academic workers voiced their refusal to allow the university to continue being held as a cash cow,” they said via Twitter direct message. “Admin, in their excessive spending on policing and surveillance, have shown that they would rather discredit the university as a place of learning than give up their cash cow.”
Abolish UC Davis, a group that said it stands in solidarity with the COLA movement, said in a statement that UC Santa Cruz’s actions reminiscent of UC Davis’s 2011 cover up, when then-UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi paid a communications firm $175,000 to erase all references of a campus police officer spraying protestors.
More importantly, the group said in its statement that the actions of the university against the strikers make it important to recall the 1969 FBI-incited murders of the Black Panthers Bunchy Carter and John Huggins on the UCLA campus.
“Such history accurately underscores that policing and militarization of the UC campuses is historically bound to the state’s relationship to education and has a specific role in targeting Black and brown students in particular,” the statement reads.
Montenegro added that it was important for people to continually ask where their resources were going.
“What we prioritize in terms of budgeting is a reflection of values,” he said. “Graduate students have done a wonderful job highlighting where the UC budget is just a hot mess.”
Vierra, also a single parent, has faced other types of targeting in her time organizing for a COLA. Though she has a parking permit, she said that when she came home to her on-campus apartment, she received excessive parking tickets. There were times, she said, when a police vehicle followed her wherever she went on campus.
“The police on campus even resorted to calling Child Protective Services on me, stating that I was mentally unstable and that my living environment was unsafe for my daughter,” Vierra said. She continues to struggle with the police in that regard.
Still, her experiences haven’t diminished her hope in the COLA movement.
Vierra called solidarity a “helluva drug.”
“The space we [COLA organizers] created was the most rejuvenating, uniting and entirely wholesome thing I’ve ever had the privilege & pleasure of participating in,” she said. “We have risen up to feed, to teach, to relieve one another while you brought a literal army. We will not stop until the whole system is repaired.”
COLA movements throughout the UC are continuing to gather pledges to initiate a Unfair Labor Practice Strike Authorization Vote through UAW 2865, which would enable the entire union membership to launch a strike. The vote was initially scheduled for early April and is now slated to take place when there are 5,000 pledges in support of a “yes” vote. Currently, there are over 2,300 of those pledges.
Written by: Janelle Marie Salanga — firstname.lastname@example.org