Upsetting the Balance

Campus Issues: Police response to last week's protests, while professional, escalated the protests and caused unnecessary disruption.

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Every protest is a careful balance between the protesters' actions and the police response. Escalation by either side, as we saw on Nov. 20, 2009, risks upsetting that balance and maximizing the disruption to campus.

We are impressed with how UCPD handled the events of March 2. By repeatedly informing the protesters of what they were doing and giving deadlines in advance for leaving the building, UCPD Chief Mitch Celaya and the officers present were able to arrest the 17 protesters while avoiding confrontation.

On March 3, when the protesters climbed out onto the ledge of Wheeler Hall, police immediately closed down the fourth floor of the building and stationed officers in the stairways. Classes continued as normal, and the only disruption to campus life was the small group of spectators gathering outside the building. Confrontation was entirely absent, as the deployment of the officers avoided the usual setup of dueling lines of protesters and police.

We're not sure why the police chose to escalate their response and disrupt this delicate balance. When it was decided to close down Wheeler Hall, disrupting or forcing the cancellation of at least two midterms, the police moved from being unobtrusive to unavoidable.

Even if they were concerned that Wheeler would be occupied, there was no reason to forcibly clear the stairs with pepper spray and batons. Last Thursday was not like Nov. 20 - many of the gathered crowd were casual bystanders, and the crowd became energized only after the police moved to secure the building. If protesters were preventing doors from being closed, officers could have pushed - rather than beaten or sprayed - them back.

Police should have continued monitoring the situation and made necessary arrests in the off chance of an occupation. By instead electing to secure the entire building, they escalated the situation, tipped the balance and created the confrontation they aimed to prevent.

When responding to protests, UCPD must weigh the necessity of controlling an area against the costs. On March 3, shutting down Wheeler Hall was too high a price to pay.

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