UCLA’s Powell Library was full of diligent students, studying for their midterms on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 14. When 11 p.m. rolled around, campus security officers routinely wound their way through the library to check student IDs. But when Mostafa Tabatebainejad, a 23-year-old Iranian-American student, failed to produce his ID, the security check turned anything but routine.
After continually refusing to leave, campus police handcuffed and attempted to escort Tabatebainejad out of the building. But when he went limp to passively resist arrest, officers armed with Taser stun guns pumped voltage through his convulsing body, to the disgust of fellow students who were interrupted from their study sessions.
The armed presence of UC police, violently attacking a student who posed no threat to anyone’s safety, is the latest incarnation of the militarization of our public education. Mostafa Tabatebainejad was making a statement when he refused to leave the library, feeling that he was being targeted for his Middle Eastern ethnicity-a statement he made through utilizing his right to civil disobedience. UCLA police went beyond their authority by shocking this peaceful student.
Freedom of speech and the right to protest are the cornerstones of democracy, and civil disobedience is an American tradition. Peaceful protest met with violent reaction is symptomatic of an abuse of power and efforts to quell freedom of speech. Regardless of whether individuals agree that Tabatebainejad was protesting a just cause effectively or not, the police response remains both inappropriate and inexcusable.
The UCLA police treated the Powell Library like a war zone, reacting to a threat-free situation in an extremely threatening manner. While police could have acted responsibly by simply removing Tabatebainejad from the building, they decided to use force and Taser shocks. The incident was captured on a cell phone video recorder and posted on YouTube, allowing Tabatebainejad’s screams and cries for mercy to be replayed nearly 500,000 times. University police, whose job it is to protect students, should not have the right to resort to violent action without severe provocation.
The Kent State massacre in 1970, when four students were killed for protesting American presence in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, may be the most extreme example of protest repression in the history of American education.
While events at UC campuses have not been as extreme, a culture of violence continues to permeate campus police codes and precedents. UCSC has recently seen symptoms of a militarized campus space. Specifically, the incidents at Tent University in spring 2005 and at the Regent’s protest last month displayed such misconduct. Violent choke holds and pepper spray were used to repress the voices of student protest before peaceful methods of de-escalation were exhausted. Although police are put in tense situations and protestors sometimes act unruly, campus police must make a priority of student safety and peaceful resolution. And in particular, officers with histories of violence should not be employed be the university as campus police.
The officer who shocked Tabatebainejad had a recognized history of violent disciplinary tactics. Three years ago, Officer Terrence Duren shot a homeless man in a campus study hall. Duren was also suspended from the force for choking a person outside of a fraternity in 1990.
The UCLA administration should strip Duren of his position and amend their code to prevent police from using Tasers without provocation. But simply removing Duren will not remedy the situation. Such acts of senseless violence should prompt us to investigate not only the individuals involved, but the culture of violence that has fostered their behavior.
The events at UCLA represent a culture of violence beyond just a deplorable situation. These abuses of power are the result of our militarized society, engulfed in an inappropriate war and pushing the frontlines of violence onto our own soil.
To see the student-recorded video footage of the Tasering incident, visit: http://youtube.com/watch?v=5g7zlJx9u2E.