I do not think that many people noticed the pepper-spraying incident when it first happened. … The attendees were visibly shaken, and wisely cautioned against people walking back to their cars alone. The two JVP members who were pepper-sprayed recounted their stories and one asked to leave as her face was all red and her contact lenses were burning. They informed us that the offender had been handcuffed for a few moments but the police had then determined there was no sufficient evidence to arrest or press charges. That the options were either to perform a citizen’s arrest – at which point everyone involved gets arrested – or for both to walk free, since it is one word against another, forget about the pepper-sprayed face. … I offered to walk the pepper-spray victim to her car outside.
I was still dumbfounded by the police action, or rather inaction, I asked the officer a couple of questions. According to her, the pepper-spraying constituted a misdemeanor offense which the police had not witnessed. This makes the testimony of both parties equally valid, as the person who used the pepper-spray could claim that they were grabbed first and acted in self-defense. The fact that 20 witnesses could confirm one version was immaterial because they clearly belonged to one group. …
The officer conceded that her understanding of the law is that if two people had a verbal altercation then one of them sucker-punches the other then claims that they had acted in self-defense, because they thought that the other person was going to punch them first, then their defense is admissible and no arrests should be made. And the solution, Officer, to people walking into private meetings with intent to disrupt and propensity to use violence than claim self-defense? None that she could think of (as long as they stop short of pulling a gun, which constitutes a felony, not a misdemeanor).
It is a sensitive issue, you see, because of free-speech limitations. She can get sued for infringing on somebody’s free speech. She is wrong. As I learned when I got home, Berkeley Penal Code S 602(o) states that a trespass is committed when a person refuses to leave a space not open to the public after being asked to do so by the owner’s agent, the person in lawful possession, or by a peace officer who is called by either. Next meeting, I will have a copy of this law ready to show to the police when they come and sit there doing nothing.
Mohammad Mahmud is a member of UC Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)