Protesters Arraigned on Charges Of Assault, Unlawful Occupation

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The 79 protesters arrested during the takeover of Wheeler Hall on the UC Berkeley campus last month were arraigned yesterday, facing charges ranging from unlawful occupation to assault of a police officer.

The defendants, 41 of whom are UC Berkeley students, clogged the Berkeley Court House answering for the charges, which they said violate their right to free speech.

The protesters were arrested on April 9 following a four-hour occupation of Wheeler Hall led by the Berkeley chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine in protest of Israeli military action against Palestinians.

Because of the occupation, which disrupted classes in the building, campus administrators have suspended the group, barring it from organizing on campus.

The group has been tabling on Sproul Plaza this week, in open violation of the restrictions.

In response, the Student Judicial Affairs Office wrote a letter to the group, threatening additional sanctions if it continues to violate restrictions, said UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

The protest went beyond just civil disobedience, said Assistant Alameda County District Attorney John Adams, who filed the charges against the protesters.

"I don't think it's exercising free speech when you disrupt someone's education," Adams said. "They think, 'My rights trump your rights'-I don't think so."

All 79 of those arrested are charged with unlawful occupation. Seven also face additional charges of resisting arrest, and one protester faces a charge of assaulting a police officer.

The occupation charge can carry a 90-day jail sentence, while the resisting arrest and assault charges can bring up to a year of incarceration, said Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jason Sjoberg.

In addition, campus officials have said the 41 students arrested may be suspended for a year.

No trial dates have been set, though the unlawful occupation trials must begin within 45 days, Sjoberg said.

The protesters are being represented by a group of volunteer attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild, who said they plan a vigorous defense.

"We are asking the (district attorney) to drop all the charges," said attorney Osha Neumann. "What (the protesters) did was in fact a service to the community."

The protesters were merely using lawful civil disobedience to fight what they believed was injustice, Neumann said.

Another defense attorney in the case, Seth Chazin, said the prosecutions are just a waste of county resources.

The charges, Neumann said, are a direct challenge to the Free Speech Movement, which got its start on campus.

Raymond Costantino, a first-year UC Berkeley graduate student who was arrested at Wheeler, said he fears the prosecution of the protesters is an effort to squash dissent on campus.

But in a letter published in The Daily Californian Tuesday, UC Berkeley Dean of Students Karen Kenney said the university has no intention of muffling free speech, calling it "a cherished tradition" on campus.

But Costantino said he had doubts his case would make it to trial because of insufficient evidence against him. Regarding his arraignment, Costantino said it is the first step in his acquittal.

"This is what we have to do-we have to see the process through," he said, but he called the charges against him "appalling."


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