by Minister of Information JR
Universities all over the state of California have erupted into protest over the raising of student fees. In the Bay Area, rebellions have been going down at UC Berkeley and at San Francisco State University regularly; students actually have brought their feelings right to the front door of the chancellor’s house.
In this interview, I talked with journalist Dave Id of Indy Bay Media, who was arrested at one of the student protests and who has also been covering the Oscar Grant movement against police terrorism in Oakland over the last year. It’s important for readers to stay in tune with what’s really going on in the streets in regards to people demanding what should be a right – an inexpensive higher education. Although we all may not be students, this issue – as well as that of police terrorism – affects us all, especially in Black communities, in one way or another.
M.O.I. JR: Can you describe why students were protesting at colleges all over California?
Dave Id: Since the early 1990s, the quality of public education has been diminishing while the costs passed on to college students have been increasing. California used to have one of the finest public education systems in the nation and indeed the world, an education that was virtually free at most levels. If I remember correctly, undergrad tuition and fees at UC, the most expensive of all the state’s public universities, were about $1,000 a year in 1990, which almost anyone with Pell grants, a loan or a part-time job could afford.
Then, political figures in the state, such as Gov. Pete Wilson and former UC Regent Ward Connerly, began to push their right-wing agenda to new levels and, unfortunately for the state, voters supported numerous propositions rearranging the state’s priorities for the worst, leading to the sad condition California public education is in today.
Ward Connerly led the charge for the dishonestly named “Civil Rights Initiative” – approved by California voters – which effectively ended affirmative action in the state, leading to a drastic drop in admissions of African American and Latinos throughout the University of California and other state college systems. Other propositions such as Three Strikes and Prop 21 became law, leading to draconian sentences for non-violent offenses and far more youth incarcerated in the adult penal system, effects felt disproportionately by people of color.
Of these mean-spirited propositions, only Prop 187, which set out to deny all public benefits for the many hardworking undocumented immigrants in California, including emergency health care, was overturned by state courts. In the 1990s and early 2000s, as tax rates continued to fall for the wealthiest amongst us, budgets for prisons in California overtook monies spent on public education. Combined with poor financial decisions of those in control of colleges and universities across the state, such as the recent pledging of tuition as collateral for construction bonds, we find ourselves where we are today.
This September, in response to a whole new round of layoffs, budget cuts, reduced admissions for in-state students and impending fee hikes, students across the UC system held strikes and walkouts. They were joined by workers and faculty. UC Santa Cruz students occupied a student commons building. In October, students at UC Berkeley fought back against reduced library hours by occupying a few libraries overnight, leading the university to relent on weekend closures and other restrictions at a number of the campus libraries.
In November, in anticipation of the vote by UC Regents to hike fees an unprecedented 32 percent in the UC system, bringing total yearly fees over $10,000 for the first time ever, students across the state organized a number of strikes, occupations and other demonstrations known as the Days of Action. Students at UCLA disrupted the regents as they met to formally approve the fee hike. Police responded violently with batons and pepper spray on those demonstrating at UCLA. Over 50 students were arrested at UC Davis after occupying their administration building.
Other student activists in Berkeley occupied Wheeler Hall while thousands of supporters surrounded the building. Police responded harshly to those outside of Wheeler Hall by beating several people, using a rubber bullet on at least one person and crushing the hand of one young woman requiring emergency reconstructive surgery. The 40-plus occupiers were arrested as well as several outside.
In response to the police violence and fee increases, UC Berkeley students flooded the office of UC President Yudof in Oakland a few days after the Wheeler occupation to demand answers and accountability. Students in Santa Cruz occupied their administration building on campus for close to a week. California State University Fresno students occupied their campus library. Students at San Francisco State University staged a sit-in at their administration building.
As the fall semester drew to a close, demonstrations continued across the state. In the Bay Area, San Francisco State students occupied their Business School building, which they renamed the Oscar Grant Memorial Hall. Over 30 people were arrested both inside and outside of the building.
Students at UC Berkeley again reclaimed Wheeler Hall, but this time as an “open university.” They did not lock themselves inside, but instead maintained a presence in the building throughout “Live Week” and hosted numerous speakers and workshops. Classes and other regular functions were allowed to continue and students frequently cleaned the building.
Students scheduled a concert for the Wheeler Auditorium on the last night of “Live Week” that was to feature Boots Riley of the Coup, but police raided the building before dawn that day, arresting over 60 sleeping people inside, many in their underwear or night clothes, despite the tacit agreement that had been reached between the university and students that both would stay out of each other’s way during the open university at Wheeler.
Separately, hundreds of students at Laney College demonstrated in Oakland as the Peralta Board was set to approve fee increases and severe budget cuts across numerous programs.
San Francisco State students occupied their Business School building, which they renamed the Oscar Grant Memorial Hall.
While college students are currently on winter break, demonstrations are expected to continue in the new year. Plans are being made for the March 4th Strike and Day of Action to Defend Public Education, when statewide demonstrations will likely include high school students, who have also seen drastic cuts to their educational opportunities.
M.O.I. JR: How did you get arrested? What were you charged with?
Dave Id: Despite the doublecross by UC administration in ordering the pre-dawn raid at Wheeler Hall on the last day of Live Week, students were determined to hold the concert they had scheduled for Friday, Dec. 11. There was a rally held in front of Wheeler Hall in the early evening and then the concert was moved to an off-campus location just north of UC Berkeley.
I had an unrelated obligation and was unable to get there in time to report on the entire event, but I was hoping that perhaps I could get there in time to at least take a few photos before the show ended, as I find Boots Riley to be one of the best lyricists of our time and I wanted to hear what he had to say about the current state of public education and the many student uprisings.
Just as I arrived, right about 11pm, maybe a hundred or more people were flowing out of the venue into the street so I grabbed my camera, jumped out of my car as fast as I could, and began to follow what I thought would be yet another political march in a long line of ones I’ve reported on over the years. I never suspected I would become a part of the story.
As the march proceeded, a few people began to pull garbage cans and newspaper stands into the streets, creating impromtu barricades. Looking back, I saw that the number of marchers was decreasing as dozens stood to the sides while most continued to move forward. The marched turned up a wide paved pathway that appeared to be an entrance to the north side of the UC Berkeley campus.
Not knowing where the march was headed, I continued to follow along. Not far down that path, the march stopped when someone who had been carrying a trash can over their head ran up some narrow stairs. I followed to see where this person was going with the trash can. It was thrown at the front door of a building at the top of the stairs. While most everyone from the march remained below on the pathway, several other people also came up the stairs and some broke some large potted plants and threw objects at windows, cracking at least one of the shatter-resistant, reinforced windows.
I called out asking what this building was at which people were expressing anger and someone responded that it was the office of the UC Berkeley chancellor. It then became apparent that the action directed toward the building was in retaliation for the morning arrests at Wheeler, in all likelihood approved by Chancellor Birgeneau.
Within minutes, a UC police car came speeding up the pathway from the opposite direction of the march with its lights and siren on. I walked down the stairs to see what would happen as police confronted marchers. Most of the marchers fled.
I stood at the bottom of the stairs, assuming the police car would pursue those who ran away, and presuming that I had nothing to fear as I was a journalist reporting on the demonstration. The car stopped right in front of me and both officers jumped out and approached me. The first thing Officer Wycoff said to me was that he wanted my camera and that I was being detained.
Even though I immediately identified myself as a journalist, they took my camera, put handcuffs on me, and placed me in the back of their patrol car. About two hours later, after I had witnessed other police bringing several arrestees to the area where I was being detained, Officer Wycoff informed me that I was being charged with felony vandalism and “riot.” I was placed into a Berkeley PD van and taken to Santa Rita jail along with other arrestees despite having repeatedly identified myself as a journalist, even showing police my press badge while I was detained.
By 9 a.m., I was fully processed into the general population at Santa Rita. About 1 p.m., I was told that I had made bail and was led to a room to await my transfer out of jail. After a half hour, I was informed that my charges had been increased, that the bond posted was no longer sufficient, and I was returned to general population.
The increased charges included six felonies total, the most crazy-sounding being felony attempted arson on an occupied building – I discovered later that the building vandalized was actually the chancellor’s home – and felony battery on a police officer with a deadly weapon. The six felonies brought my bail up to $132,000, which would require a non-refundable payment of $13,000 to a bail bond company if I were to be released prior to my arraignment, if then.
As dark approached, I finally made bail for the increased charges. I was free by 7 p.m. I will be repaying that $13,000 to the people kind enough to loan me the money for my bail throughout most of 2010. Only two others from the UC8, as we were labeled, were likewise able to make bail. The other five sat in Santa Rita until the evening after our afternoon arraignment on Tuesday, Dec. 15.
M.O.I. JR: Why do you think your charges were dropped?
Dave Id: I’m not sure if “dropped” is the right word. Maybe it is. Basically, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office announced at the arraignment that it would not file any charges against any of the UC8, presumably due to a complete lack of evidence against any of us. I, for one at least, had exculpatory evidence in that the UC police had confiscated my camera with photos taken during the march, proving that I was acting as a photojournalist at the time and not participating in any vandalism.
The fact that all eight of us were detained or arrested in different locations under different circumstances yet we were all charged with the same ridiculous felonies probably didn’t help the case of the UC police either. I’m not sure if UC’s intentions were ever to actually bring a case against those arrested, though, and they may have merely wanted to keep as many people in jail on trumped up charges and bails for the days until the arraignment.
The time we were locked up – especially me, who would have otherwise reported on the events that weekend, with photographic evidence – allowed UC Berkeley to completely control the media narrative for days on end. Their reports exaggerated what had happened and completely neglected to mention that they had wrongfully arrested a reporter or that they had no evidence against any person arrested that night.
Gov. Schwarzenegger and [U.S. Sen.] Dianne Feinstein piled on with statements calling the acts at the chancellor’s house “terrorism” and so forth. The corporate media ate it up with non-stop reports parroting such statements.
Right after the arraignment, I read my own statement at a press conference in front of the Wiley Manuel Courthouse after John Viola of the National Lawyer’s Guild and a student representative addressed dozens of supporters. I spoke to the travesty of UC Berkeley stifling the First Amendment by arresting a journalist and reminded all of those present that I am not the only independent journalist to be treated as such in Alameda County in 2009 – JR Valrey still faces bogus felony charges resulting from his coverage of the Jan. 7 Oscar Grant rebellion in Oakland.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us about your work on the case of the Oscar Grant?
Dave Id: I began reporting on the movement for justice for Oscar Grant on Jan. 7, starting with the rally at the Fruitvale BART station. I’ve covered countless demonstrations since. I’ve been to numerous Town Hall and other community meetings. I’ve been to far more related BART meetings than I would ever wish on anyone. I’ve gone to the Alameda County Courthouse and purchased copies of court documents which I share online.
While I was unable to personally attend, I managed to successfully coordinate coverage of Mehserle’s preliminary hearing so that the full story could get out because the corporate media tends to uncritically focus on one or two statements made by BART police who have testified each day, ignoring the majority of what happens in the courtroom.
I do all this as a volunteer and don’t make a penny for the reporting work that I do. I look at it as a community service. I write reports, take photos, video and audio about this and other movements and post them online for those who are not able to attend.
On the one hand, if I get my posts up fast enough, it’s news about events as they unfold. On the other hand, it’s an archive and permanent record of what activists have been doing to secure justice for Oscar Grant and the many other unarmed people who have been abused and murdered by police.
The SF Bay View has republished many of my photos and some of my reports, for which I feel honored. I greatly appreciate the tireless work of those at the SF Bay View in seeking justice on so many fronts in the Bay Area and beyond.
M.O.I. JR: What do you think about the Oscar Grant murder trial being moved to Los Angeles?
Dave Id: Mehserle’s defense team, headed up by Michael Rains, made a number of racist arguments in their motion to change venue. I think it’s a grave injustice that Judge Jacobson agreed that a police officer who kills an unarmed man on camera in Oakland cannot receive a fair trial here.
What about the countless others who are convicted of murder and other serious charges in Alameda County courts? Apparently, the judge thinks they are all getting fair trials.
I’m not sure if the poll of potential Alameda County jurors that the defense presented was even scientific. They used an unusually small sample of less than 400 registered voters, which included less than 20 African Americans. Yet the defense claimed that the poll “proved” that African Americans as a whole could not be impartial jurors. The defense also took numerous swipes at community activists in what many interpreted as an attempt to silence related activism.
So now the trial has been moved to Los Angeles. While it rightfully should be held in Oakland, LA represents probably the second-best venue to try Mehserle for murder. Although LA doesn’t match the racial diversity of Alameda nor its politically left-leaning demographics, it is the next closest county on such measures. The selection of any other county in the state would have revealed the trial to be a complete sham for those active in the movement for justice for the murder of Oscar Grant.
I am currently focused on securing any number of volunteer independent media journalists to report from inside the LA courtroom as we were fortunate enough to have during the preliminary hearing in Alameda County Superior Court. BART police lied through their teeth then, and even Judge Clay was rolling his eyes and ridiculing their false testimony. But if you only saw corporate media reports you would be clueless as to how the hearing actually proceeded.
If you know anyone in Los Angeles who is available during court business hours who has an interest in writing and appreciates independent media, please ask them to contact me (through the SF Bay View or Indybay.org). During the preliminary hearing, the independent reports posted were actually the cumulative work of several people who attended one or more days of the hearing, so people do not have to attend every last hearing to help. The trial will not be televised in any way, so it is crucial that we get the truth out there and are not forced to rely on flimsy corporate reports that tend to favor police testimony no matter how obviously perjurious it may be.
M.O.I. JR: How do people stay in touch with your work?
Dave Id: I post exclusively to the all-volunteer, open-publishing activist news website Indybay.org. Indybay, formally known as the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center, is a non-commercial, democratic collective of Bay Area independent media makers and serves as the local organizing unit of the global Indymedia network.
Indybay has put together a page with all features related to the movement for justice for Oscar Grant at http://www.indybay.org/oscargrant. That page highlights all of the related features created from the coverage of myself and others over the past year. For the most recent individual posts, you can check the newswires on the Police State or Racial Justice pages at Indybay – listed under Topics in the left-side navigation.
For coverage of student demonstrations, you can check Indybay’s Education and Student Activism page. I intend to write an analysis and detailed account of my experiences from my Dec. 11 detainment and arrest in a series to be published over the next few weeks.
Lastly, I’d like to encourage anyone dissatisfied with the corporate media to start making your own media. You don’t need a thousand dollar camera. You don’t even need a camera. You don’t have to be the best writer out there. Many supposed “pros” who get paid to report do a terrible job covering issues important to you and I. You don’t need big time media contacts to get your coverage out there.
The SF Bay View would likely be interested in your reporting. And absolutely anyone can post reports to Indybay.org by just clicking on the “Publish” link. If you attend a social justice lecture or demonstration, seriously consider writing a few paragraphs on the event. If you like taking pictures, share those too. Especially if the corporate media is ignoring your group or event, or doing a poor job covering your issue, get out there and do it. As an old Independent Media Center slogan goes: “Make media! Make trouble!”