UC Santa Cruz graduate student Sabrina Shirazi sued members of the UC Police Department and a member of the California Highway Patrol on Jan. 14, 2021, for numerous claims related to alleged excessive force by the police while Shirazi was protesting with the COLA movement in February 2020. In September 2021, Shirazi’s lawsuit will be heard for the first time at the U.S Northern District Court of California.
If it was a regular mid-quarter Monday, Sabrina Shirazi would have spent her early morning on main campus. A graduate student and teaching assistant in ecology and evolutionary biology, her 9 a.m. usually consisted of lab work, but on Feb. 10, 2020, she had a different plan.
Feb. 10 encompassed the build up of weeks of tension between graduate students and UC administration, as graduate students commenced their first day of a full teaching strike. Shirazi and hundreds of graduate students gathered at the base of campus, face-to-face with dozens of police officers from the UC Santa Cruz Police Department (UCSC PD), California Highway Patrol (CHP), and other officers from the UC Police Department (UCPD).
Tensions rose as a COLA supporter was arrested by police as she was bringing water to protestors. The arrest caused other protestors to circle around the police car, calling for the woman’s release. In response, about 20 officers, batons in hand, moved in on the protesters.
Shirazi was on the front lines when the phalanx of police officers collided with the crowd.
A video forwarded by UCSC graduate student Veronica Hamilton in a mass email thread to UCSC students shows Shirazi being seized by the first officer in the group. Within seconds, her face is swallowed by a sea of uniforms. A pair of aviators fly from her face as she is sandwiched between the officers and picketers.
Shirazi alleges that multiple officers then clubbed her with their batons a total of five times across her head and upper body.
“I went to my college campus and did nothing to warrant excessive force. I never have in my life,” Shirazi wrote in an email to City on a Hill Press. “This was the first day of the strike. After a week of the strike with the university bringing in more militarized cops I would have been more worried, but Day 1, I couldn’t have even imagined it.”
Shirazi filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers she claims were involved in her injury 11 months later, alleging violation of First Amendment rights, conspiracy to deprive plaintiff of her constitutional rights, and assault and battery.
Shirazi went to the UCSC Student Health Center the day of the incident. The doctors told her she had suffered a concussion, and she was going to feel much worse once the adrenaline wore off. She expected there’d be some pain, but it was worse than she could have imagined.
Her entire body hurt. Along with the concussion, she suffered multiple sprains, strains, and soft tissue injuries leaving her bedridden for weeks and resulting in a trip to the emergency room a few days later.
Some of her friends knew what happened, but Shirazi didn’t speak out about her assault at first. She said she was in so much pain that she wasn’t in a state to be making announcements. Throughout the following weeks, she said mood swings from her concussions kept her from making any public statements.
Shirazi released a public statement in spring of 2020, where she detailed her account of the day, her injuries, and how she had become an aftereffect of the militarization and inherent racism in policing.
“I am physically small, and could have easily been moved aside by any single officer. I was the only person injured in the crowd that day,” Shirazi wrote in her statement. “Within the area of the crowd I was in, I had the darkest skin and features, and I suspect I was racially targeted by police.”
This claim is also reiterated in the factual allegations portion of the lawsuit Shirazi filed.
Civil rights attorney Rachel Lederman, who eventually became one of Shirazi’s lawyers, was consulting with several students who had been injured during the strikes and others who were being prosecuted on student conduct charges when she first met Shirazi.
Lederman has built a reputation representing victims of police misconduct, particularly in cases where discrimination plays a hand. In the wake of police violence at protests following the police murder of George Floyd in June 2020, Lederman has taken up cases across the Bay Area that point to the systemic nature of racist and violent policing.
After waiting to see how serious Shirazi’s injuries were — and receiving no response from the university to Shirazi’s statement—Shirazi and Lederman decided to file a lawsuit.
“This was a perfectly legal, lawful labor picket,” Lederman said. “There was no reason whatsoever for the officers to use any kind of force, let alone hit someone on the head, which is widely recognized as a potentially lethal use of force that police are not allowed to do unless there would be a reason for them to kill the person. This was an overreaction, to say the least.”
Lederman also said this January that Shirazi was still suffering from the injury and getting treatment. The complaint also states that the officers made no attempt to arrest Shirazi and argues her presence never presented conduct that justified the use of force by police.
“Despite the fact that plaintiff was not impeding the officers or presenting any threat, and is a relatively small woman, [officers] surrounded her and clubbed her repeatedly on the head, neck, shoulder, and body,” the lawsuit Shirazi filed against the UCPD reads. “[…] Plaintiff told [the officers] that they had trapped her and that she could not get out, but they continued to hit and shove her until they pushed her down and stepped over her.”
The letter of the lawsuit
In her civil rights lawsuit filed on Jan. 14, 2021, with the U.S Northern District Court of California, Shirazi lists eight claims, including violation of First Amendment rights, conspiracy to deprive plaintiff of her constitutional rights, and assault and battery.
The lawsuit currently includes former UCSC Police Chief Nader Oweis, UCSC PD Lieutenant Greg Flippo, UCPD Officer Loren Bates, CHP Officer Brandon Silva, and DOES 3-50 as defendants — DOES 3-50 being defendants who supervised or participated in the misconduct but remain unidentified.
The initial complaint only listed Oweis and Flippo because the university declined to release the police report from the incident, leaving Bates and Silva’s identities unknown. An amended motion on March 3 listed Bates and Silva as defendants.
Claims of relief against Oweis, Flippo, Bates, and Silva:
1. Violation of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment
2. Violation of First Amendment
3. Conspiracy to deprive plaintiff of constitutional rights
4. Failure to intervene
Claims of relief against Oweis, Flippo, and Bates:
5. Assault and battery
6. Violation of California Civil Code § 51.7
7. Violation of California Civil Code § 52.1
Oweis and Flippo are being sued for their alleged supervision of police actions that led to Shirazi’s alleged assault. Bates and Silva are being sued for allegedly clubbing Shirazi.
Oweis is currently employed as the chief of police for Sonoma State University after leaving UCSC PD in December 2020. Flippo and Bates are still employed by the UCPD, and Silva is still employed by CHP Santa Cruz.
Representatives from Sonoma State University declined to provide comment regarding how litigation is affecting Oweis’ current employment at Sonoma State or if they were aware of the allegations made by Shirazi during his hiring, instead redirecting City on a Hill Press to UCSC representatives. Oweis, Flippo, and Bates’s lawyers, John Whitefleet and Carl Fessenden, told City on a Hill Press the same.
Silva is represented by Rob Bonta and Jeff Vincent, the attorney general and supervising deputy attorney general of California, respectively, since the California Highway Patrol is a state agency. At the time of press, Vincent did not respond to City on a Hill Press’ request for comment.
When the lawsuit was filed in January, UCSC director of news and media relations Scott Hernandez-Jason said that the university was reviewing the allegations made by Shirazi. Hernandez-Jason said the complaint is rooted in an inaccurate representation of the day’s chain of events.
“UC Santa Cruz expects all its employees to foster and maintain a supportive educational environment for our students. We take seriously any allegations of harm to those in our campus community. We have received the complaint and are reviewing the claims closely,” Hernandez-Jason wrote in an email in January, following news of Shirazi’s lawsuit. “Our initial review indicates that the account presented by the plaintiff is not an accurate description of the incident. However, we will address these allegations in the course of the litigation.”
The university declined to discuss the allegations in specific terms and didn’t identify what allegations they deemed inaccurate. Additional requests for comment by City on Hill Press in June 2021 were declined, due to the case’s active status.
“It’s not really a supportive educational environment when you hit your own student over the head and cause her to have a concussion and stay in bed for a month,” Lederman said when asked about the University’s statement.
Exactly one year after the event that led to the lawsuit, Oweis and Flippo moved to dismiss Shirazi’s complaint on Feb. 10, arguing that the claims Shirazi put forth in her complaint failed to state sufficient facts — that is, meet the factual standards for the specific claims Shirazi is pursuing.
Oweis and Flippo’s motion to dismiss was amended on April 7 to include UCPD Officer Bates while a separate motion to dismiss was filed by CHP Officer Silva on April 26.
“Plaintiff’s complaint must state facts showing he/she is entitled to relief. […] The court will take Plaintiff’s allegations as true and construe them in his favor. […] However, Plaintiff’s thin recitation of elements, supported only by conclusory statements and unwarranted inferences, will not survive a motion to dismiss,” said Oweis, Flippo, and Bates’ motion to dismiss regarding Shirazi’s complaint as a whole.
In their response to the defendants’ motion to dismiss filed on May 6, Shirazi’s lawyers say their plaintiff’s allegations are more than sufficient to establish that each claim should at least be examined by a court of law, despite the limited information currently available.
They also said that Flippo and Oweis escalated the situation by ordering officers to jog into the crowd without ordering demonstrators to disperse, or giving them an opportunity to do so.
“This police action set in motion the excessive force suffered by Ms. Shirazi,” said Shirazi’s response to the defendants motion to dismiss. “Oweis and Flippo ordered or acquiesced in the officers’ unlawful use of force when they were present and/or monitoring the police response to the event, yet failed to intervene, summon medical aid for plaintiff, or even so much as ask her if she was alright.”
Additionally, Shirazi’s lawyers argued that if the court ruled that any of her claims failed to meet the standards necessary for them to be examined by a court, the court should grant Shirazi’s legal team time to revise their allegations to include additional detail concerning targeting and surveillance of strike organizers — called “leave to amend” in legalese.
What happens next?
A court hearing regarding both motions to dismiss from the officers will be held on Sept. 2, 2021.
If the judge sides with Shirazi and denies both motions, the case will move forward to discovery, where both parties will exchange evidence with each other to make sure that no surprise evidence is presented at a potential trial.
Throughout the legal process, the parties could mutually agree to settle. If the case makes its way all the way to trial, a resolution to the case may not happen until 2023 due to a backlog of cases at the U.S. Northern District Court of California, where the lawsuit is taking place.
“It’s just really all a question of the attitude that’s taken by UC and CHP as to whether they want to take responsibility for their officers beating Sabrina Shirazi and seriously injuring her for no particular reason,” Lederman said.
Until then, Shirazi will have to wait to see whether she’ll get the justice she thinks she deserves. In the meantime, she hopes that her experience represents the last time a UC student will be harmed at the hands of UCPD.
“I am asking for joint community commitment to demanding change in the way the university polices its community in trying to protect it,” Shirazi said in her initial statement. “I am hoping the University administration are just as disgusted as I am with the performance of police officers on our campus and are working to avoid any incident like this from ever happening at their hands again.”