Eight people were arrested on Friday night at UC Berkeley after a group of several dozen marched on the on-campus residence of chancellor Robert Birgeneau. Photographs taken at the home the following day showed that lights and heavy planters had been smashed, and that two windows had been shattered. Police and UC officials said that members of the crowd had thrown flaming torches at police, police cars, and the home itself.
Early reports from both the university and activists described the attack on the chancellor’s home as a unified group action. An official Berkeley statement said that “a group of about 40 to 70 protesters” had “stormed” the residence, “smashing planters, windows and lights while shouting, ‘No justice, no peace.’” An account posted at the activist website Occupy California said that “the march quickly turned into a small riot” en route to the residence, and that “the crowd … began smashing lights, damaging windows, and breaking pots” once they arrived there.
But in the days that followed, information has surfaced that calls this version of events into question. A professor of education who was working in his office less than a hundred yards from the residence that night says that the crowd scattered only moments after arriving at the scene — his impression was that the property destruction that took place was “remarkably brief and perhaps spontaneous.” It “did not and does not strike me as sustained,” he wrote.
The character of the march to the residence is also in dispute. It was reported early on that protesters had dragged trash cans and newspaper boxes into the street while marching, for instance, but one eyewitness says that other march participants dragged them back to the sidewalk again before the police arrived.
The developing story of the eight arrests carried out that night reflects the ambiguity of the situation. Initial reports described six of the eight as non-students, but it has since emerged that four of the eight are students at either Berkeley or UC Davis, and that the remainder include a local journalist and a visiting doctoral student from New York. The journalist said in a statement yesterday that he was arrested while covering the protest, not participating in it, and that the first officer to approach him demanded his camera.
When the eight arrestees were taken into custody, they were booked for rioting, threatening an education official, attempted burglary, attempted arson, felony vandalism and assault. Bail was set at $132,000 — three of the eight paid non-refundable bonds of $13,000, and the other five were held in jail for four days. But on Tuesday the DA’s office declined to bring charges against any of them, and the five who were still jailed were released.
Charges may still be brought in the future, but for now, no charges are pending against any participants in the Friday night demonstration.
Asked about the DA’s decision yesterday, UC Berkeley officials declined to comment.
Update | UC Davis professor Bob Ostertag has a piece up at Huffington Post about the week’s Berkeley events, and much of it is relevant to the arguments I make here. Ostertag, calls the two arrested Davis students “wonderful students: thoughtful, inquisitive, respectful, and supportive of their peers,” says that people present at the demonstration have told him that the vandalism committed that night was perpetrated “by a small splinter group, and that the cops arrested the wrong people.”