Student Protests and Campus Police

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A federal court ruled on the use of Tasers by California police.  The ruling came in response to a 2005 incident in which a man was Tasered during a traffic stop, allegedly without provocation.  While the case may go to a higher court, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling would restrict Taser use to instances of immanent threat to an officer, effectively banning use of the weapon against individuals in police custody and protesters.

The implications at the University of California should by now be obvious.  Tasers were used on multiple students at UCLA during the UC Regents meeting Nov. 18 and 19 last quarter, and many of the police confronting student protesters were from UCI.  Witnesses from UCI reported seeing fellow protesters shot in the face with the device. More recently, at a Nov. 24 rally at UCI, police officers gestured toward their Tasers when students tried to enter Aldrich Hall.

The ruling comes amid a long campaign to have the weapons banned. Tasers were marketed as a “less-than-lethal” weapon, a supposedly non-fatal means of subduing violent criminals.  The device emits 50,000 volts; to put this in perspective, home electrical outlets usually carry about 120 volts.  Although the current is low (about 0.03 amps), the Taser X26 model is powerful enough to kill, and indeed it has.

Amnesty International has reported 334 deaths following Taser use in the United States between 2001 and 2008.  In 2007, the UN Committee on Torture released a statement that the “use of Taser X26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and… in certain cases, it could also cause death.”  More recently, Oscar Grant was murdered while in police custody after a BART officer claimed he mistook his Taser for his handgun.

So why are UCI police carrying deadly weapons on campus and threatening to use them against peaceful protesters?  Our police will claim that they would never shoot a student — then again, they do carry handguns to protests, encouraging the possibility of another Grant murder.  UCI police are also trained in assault rifle use, and likely carry them in their vehicles.  Last quarter, UC Berkeley police shattered the hand of a female student who grabbed a police barricade; and UC Santa Cruz police inadvertently pushed Anthropology Professor Mark Anderson off a balcony, sending him to the hospital with a back injury.

And there is still the lingering memory of the 1970 Kent State massacre, when National Guardsmen opened fire on student protesters at the Ohio college, killing four students and seriously wounding nine more.  Whether we want to believe it or not, police have murdered enough peaceful student protesters over the past 40 years that it is not altogether unreasonable to worry that it could happen here at Irvine.

UC administration and UCPD have yet to answer our questions about Taser use at UCLA, and as protests over the budget cuts escalate, use of these devices will likely increase. While administrators and the governor have called students “violent” and “terrorists,” it is all too clear that the only violent ones are wearing badges.  Until our police are held accountable to students and use of these weapons is banned, we continue to run the risk of serious injuries and even death every time we protest and speak out, a freedom our dear administration has claimed to support.  But how can we have freedom of assembly and speech with these lethal weapons pointed at us?

John Bruning is a graduate student in the sociology department.  He can reached at jbruning@uci.edu.

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