An Open Letter to
The silence on the phone was overwhelming. It's moments like these that you become aware of just how much static there is on your average phone line.
After weeks of phone calls weeks of, "I'm sorry, Ms. Casarez-Levinson is in a meeting, can I take a message?" her secretary Sally slipped up.
"She's here," Sally said, "may I ask who's calling?"
"This is Derek from the Fish Rap," I said.
"Uh, one moment," Said Sally.
Then came the silence.
Rosa Casarez-Levinson is the independent investigator that the university brought in after the protest at McHenry last November where police were accused of using unnecessary force. I was at that protest, and I know what happened. Still, six months have gone by without a word from her or the administration. So here I am, six months older, waiting on the phone to ask her how the investigation is going.
"Um, sorry," Said Sally, "Ms. Casarez-Levinson is real busy right now, can I take a message?"
"Sure," I said, and left the same message I've been leaving all week.
So Ms. Casarez-Levinson, before you and the campus administration brush McHenry under the rug, perhaps you could read one more story.
I've been photographing campus protests for two years now and I have never seen anything like I saw that night. Even now, half a year later, it still comes creeping back into my head when I 'm falling asleep at night. Images of police in riot gear and students beaten and one word echoing in my ears: "Peace!"
I'd heard there was going to be a protest at the Chancellors' Office, so I brought my camera to campus and tagged along. The UC's had been having budget problems for years, but the cuts were just beginning to come down. It was only a matter of time before the students of the University of California looked up from their books and realized their fees were going up while student services were going down. Classes were being cut right and left. Rape prevention, language programs, and KZSC were all being threatened. That first quarter, I was turned away from nine classes because they were full. And in the middle of this, the Regents gave UC President David Gardner a million dollar retirement gift. That is my money, our money they're giving out.
So with the ancient promises of the UC's crumbling around us, the crowd marched through the colleges and wound it's way to Vice Chancellor Mike Tanner's office. He's the one who is deciding where the money goes. Suddenly there were 200 pissed off students in the entryway of his office. Screaming.
After about an hour of speeches and hell-no-we-won't-go's, Tanner came out, flanked by two police guards. He tried to answer some questions, but this crowd was not about to swallow another party line. The more he talked, the clearer it became that he was totally out of touch with the students se is supposed to represent.
He left after about an hour. He tried his best, but when he said that "every department is taking cuts" and a student asked about his $118,000 a year salary, he got huffy and started to leave. A protest organizer then said, "why don't you go and think about our demands and come back at five?" Tanner Said, "that's a good idea," and went back into his office, which was promptly locked from the inside with handcuffs. I counted at least six police milling around in there.
In the hour before five I was thinking about a lot of things. I was thinking about how my dad taught me how to use a camera, about how I just fell into photojournalism my first year at UCSC, about here I was, armed with a camera, watching a dam about to break. But most of all, I was thinking about how I was an objective, non-partisan journalist. I'd spent my years as a protester and never saw it accomplish anything beyond letting off some steam. Sure I was a student, But I knew that Tanner couldn't meet some of the protester's demands and probably wouldn't meet the rest. I was acting solely as an observer. It was an odd solace.
By the time five rolled around it became clear that Tanner had lied. He wasn't coming back. As five o'clock came and went, you could feel the crowd swell and buzz, like a swarm of bee's preparing to strike.
I don't remember exactly how it happened one of the secretaries was leaving or something but somebody opened the door to Tanner's office. The next thing I knew, there was this incredible surge of bodies. It was like a single pebble that touched off a landslide. It was as if everybody knew what was about to happen, but nobody said a word.
Colliding waves of students and police rushed at the door from opposite sides. When the dust settled, the two forces had their sides firmly staked: the police on the inside, holding the students back, and the students on the outside, holding the door open. And nobody was going anywhere.
They stood there for over an hour, the police in a human wall to keep the students out of the office they paid for. The students sat patiently, holding the door open. It was a tense stalemate, and it didn't last long.
Without warning, ten Santa Cruz City police officers in riot gear burst through a side door and began to push and kick, club and mace anyone who didn't move out of the way fast enough.
The students were not especially practiced in nonviolence. Students yelled, threw things and generally fought back. I saw one student take a swing at a cop. Of course, he couldn't see what he was swinging at because his eyes were full of pepper spray. And there I was, waiting for my flash to charge.
For one mysterious moment it was as if one word could stop an army of police
The most frightening moment for me was when I realized exactly where I was. In my quest for the better photo, I'd managed to jam myself right in front of the door. When I turned to move out of the way of the cops, I saw a sea of 100 students crammed in the 20 feet between me and the outside... and no one was moving. I also realized that, to these cops, I was not an objective photojournalist, I was just another disruptive student. That's when I knew which side I was really on. That's when I knew I was a student, after all.
Then an amazing thing happened. It started with just one person. "Peace!" Then others caught on. "Peace! Peace!" Suddenly the whole crowd was chanting. "Peace! Peace! Peace!" It was like a drum beating out a futile plea. With every beat, the students threw their arms out at the cops, not with fists, but with peace signs.
"Peace! Peace! Peace! Peace!"
And for one mysterious moment, and maybe it as just me, but I could have sworn the cops stopped and looked around. Maybe I just imagined it, but for that split second it was as if one word could stop an army of police.
But it didn't. They pushed and pulled, clubbed and maced until the door was shut and justice had been served. Then, as quickly as they'd arrived, they departed, leaving a scattered mass of students in the place where a determined band of protesters once stood. Most people left. A few stayed the night. I just drifted to my car, lost in the brutality of the world, choking on my tears.
When I left the darkroom that next night with those photos in my hand, I knew one thing for sure: I had to show these photos to the world. And I did. The Fish Rap put out a special issue with the whole story and three photos. But nothing changed. Here we are, six months later and things have only gotten worse. The cuts are coming down all over and the protests have all but died out. People who have worked for the University for years are being laid-off without a word of protest. Maybe McHenry broke our backs. Maybe complaining about it is like rearranging the furniture on the Titanic, futile moves on a sinking ship.
Immediately after this article was published, Rosa Casarez-Levinson published her report. She found that there was, indeed, an excessive use of force by the police. The UC administration immediately dismissed the report, reclassifying it as "the student perspective," and commissioned another report from Jan Tepper, Chief of UC Police. Then they fired Casarez-Levinson. My attempts to contact her were unsuccessful. Rosa, where ever you are, the students of UCSC are in your debt. You did the right thing. DMP