"Mostly all lies” is how San Diego State University graduate student and teaching assistant Ashley Wardle characterizes statements two California State University officials made during a joint legislative subcommittee hearing in Sacramento last month. The meeting was called by Marty Block, the 78th District assemblymember, to investigate charges of excessive use of force by police departments in California’s two public university systems.
During public comment, Wardle, who is 24, gave her version of what had happened a month earlier at a California State University board of trustees meeting. On November 16, at the university’s Long Beach headquarters, Cal State students from a number of campuses protested a pending decision to hike tuition 9 percent for the 2012–2013 school year. The move would come on the heels of a 12 percent tuition increase last fall, approved in a July board meeting that also gave SDSU’s new president, Elliot Hirschman, a salary $100,000 higher than his predecessor’s.
On the day of the protest, Wardle and 50 other students traveled to the board meeting in a bus sponsored by the ReFund California Coalition. The organization describes itself as a broad-based group of people “working to make Wall Street banks pay” for, among other things, causing a state funding shortage that has resulted in hefty tuition increases.
The San Diego contingent arrived in Long Beach after the meeting had started. Outside the headquarters, the trustees provided a sign-up sheet for students who wanted to speak to the board. Wardle signed, and when her name was called, she moved forward. She learned later that “the chancellor was just then turning off the microphone because a student had reached his time limit,” she says. “So that student did a mic check, which is the human microphone: he said something, and all the students inside repeated it. So the trustees kicked the students out, and they were coming out, escorted by police, as I was trying to get into the building.”
The trustees went to a conference room where, in private, they passed the tuition increase. Outside the building, the drama escalated. “Since I was up-front now,” says Wardle, “I was one of the few people who were able to keep the door to the building open.” Meanwhile, police officers on the inside were struggling to close the door. The building’s double doors were made wholly of glass. “Suddenly,” Wardle continues, “they started pepper-spraying the entire crowd to get us to move back.” The students didn’t move far enough to satisfy police, who then, according to Wardle, began using batons to jab and push her and other students. But she was being pushed by students behind her. Finally, she says, “a cop grabbed me by my backpack and pulled me inside the building,” where she and another SDSU student were thrown facedown by police.
A short YouTube video from inside the building captures officers pulling the girls’ arms behind them and handcuffing them. Eventually, the officers arrested them on charges of “resisting arrest.”
Videos show that police succeeded in closing the door, but students began pulling on the door handle outside, while police officers were pulling on the one inside. Sixteen seconds after the girls rise from the floor, the door shatters, exploding from inside out.
A video taken from outside shows a black object running between the inside handles of the two doors only seconds before the glass shattered. Students later speculated that a police baton had lodged between the doors, causing too much pressure on them as people pulled on either side. According to university police, however, and a story the next day in the Orange County Register, blame for the damage rested on students.
And what does pepper spray feel like? “Your skin feels like it’s on fire,” says Wardle, “like you could fry an egg. It gets in your eyes, and the only thing we received from the police was water. But pepper spray is oil based, so water makes it worse.”
It was the YouTube video of another campus incident that prompted Assemblyman Block to convene his hearing. During a phone interview late last month, Block said, “I saw the 15-second YouTube clip of what happened at UC Davis. Students were sitting peacefully, and the officers with pepper spray looked like they were spraying insects.”
The University of California has commissioned an external investigation into the Davis incident. “But the police chief for the [state university] system said they were going to do an internal investigation,” said Block, “and characterized the people they claimed were disruptive as being agitators.”
Block said he would follow up with letters, one to Cal State chancellor Charles Reed asking that he commission an external investigation into whether university police had used excessive force. “We had public testimony at the conclusion of our hearing, where students and staff refuted the version we heard from the police chief,” said Block. “It is at least open to doubt whether there could be an objective internal investigation. I don’t prejudge. But we need somebody else to make the call.”
Ashley Wardle spent the night of November 16 in a Long Beach jail, and a week after returning to San Diego, Cal State police added “inciting a riot” to her original charge. While being booked into jail, Wardle did enjoy a laugh when, on a table near where she was chained to two other protesters, she spotted a box of candy being sold to raise money for a local school.
But now Wardle has taken another blow. On January 6, SDSU’s Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities sent an email notifying her that she has been suspended for the spring semester and that she will no longer be allowed to work as a graduate teaching assistant. Along with the tuition increase next fall, she’ll lose $1000 in pay.