Twelve individuals involved in the protest and blockade of US Bank, that ultimately led to the bank closing its UC Davis Branch, were mailed letters from the Yolo County DA’s office, ordering them to appear on misdemeanor charges, according to Claudia Morain, spokesperson for UC Davis.
The Vanguard has learned that arraignment will take place on April 27, focusing on two charges – a misdemeanor to “willfully and maliciously” obstruct the free movement of any person on any street, sidewalk or other public place, or to intentionally interfere with any lawful business, and a conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor.
One of those who faces these charges, Geoffrey Wildanger, told the Vanguard that he was advised not to respond, given the possibility of it negatively impacting his case.
However, previously he had told the Davis Enterprise, “This is an absurd mockery of any sort of just situation… Protesters can’t be pepper-sprayed because of the media response, so now they’re being run through the court system.”
The Vanguard was referred to Kristin Koster, one of those involved in the blockade of US Bank, but not facing charges.
She told the Vanguard that most likely, the purpose of this decision was to protect the university from a potential lawsuit from US Bank.
“It’s important to note that the UCD administration first sent the names of protestors to SJA in February,” she told the Vanguard, about referrals to Student Judicial Affairs (SJA).
It was only when US Bank announced its intention to close, she said, “The administration cancelled the SJA meetings, and elected to have the police forward the names of a larger group of students and faculty to the DA.”
“This decision makes sense from the university’s perspective, as a way to protect itself from a lawsuit,” she said.
UC Davis, on the other hand, seems to believe that they gave the students ample warning and opportunities to engage in more constructive dialogue and actions.
UC Davis Spokesperson Barry Shiller told the Vanguard by email late Friday, “Campus representatives tried daily for nearly two months to engage these individuals, both to understand their motives and try to reach some common ground.”
Notices were posted over the ensuing weeks and handed out to protesters. These notices, as we have previously noted, explained the potential legal consequences of blocking the bank entrance.
“This, too, had no discernible effect,” Mr. Shiller said. “The Yolo County District Attorney was subsequently asked to review the matter, and has now issued the misdemeanor complaints.”
The Yolo County District Attorney’s office, not surprisingly, did not return phone messages from the Vanguard on Friday.
However, Chief Deputy DA Jonathan Raven told the Woodland Daily Democrat that, if convicted, the protesters could face more than $1 million in restitution, in addition to three years of probation and potentially six months in the county jails.
“This is the potential loss to U.S. Bank, which shut down as a result of the protesters,” Mr. Raven told the Daily Democrat.
The DA’s office was forwarded six cases, originally, from UC Davis and ultimately charged twelve demonstrators. Previously, they declined to file charges against those who had been involved in the November 18 pepper-spray incident.
“The evidence was so much stronger in this case (U.S. Bank) than the other case,” Mr. Raven told the Woodland paper.
Michael Cabral, who is Yolo County’s assistant chief deputy DA, told the Davis Enterprise, “We examined the case based on the names provided by the police… We evaluated the evidence based on those who were out there most of the time.”
US Bank told UC officials that it is terminating its agreements with the campus. In a March 1 letter to the Board of Regents, the bank stated its reason as the interference by protesters who intermittently blocked the door to the bank branch in the Memorial Union since January.
Mr. Shiller said that while the demonstrations in front of the bank began in early January, “The protesters’ pattern shifted from simply congregating in front of the bank’s entrance while allowing customers and employees to enter and exit freely, to actively obstructing people from entering and exiting.”
U.S. Bank employees “were effectively imprisoned in the branch,” bank Senior Vice President Daniel Hoke said in his March 1 letter. He noted that employees felt they needed to call campus police to escort them from the branch.
But Kristin Koster disagreed.
“While the protest did intend to stop bank business, employees, police and security guards were certainly free to come and go from the bank–and they did, regularly” she told the Vanguard.
“We were clear that we were there to protest privatization; but we also made it clear that we were not keeping employees closed inside,” she added.
The bank had its own private security and would often lock the doors from the inside.
“Considering employees had their own private security guards inside, and the UCPD out front with the protesters every day, there was no possibility that they were in danger,” Ms. Koster added. “Protesters actively cleared the paths of obstacles when employees entered or exited.”
She also noted the open hostility by the bank employees towards the protesters.
She said, “On a number of occasions bank employees hit seated protestors in the face with brief cases or purses on their way out, rolled over computers with their carry-on luggage, and cursed openly at us.”
Ms. Koster added, “One student even filed charges against a bank employee who assaulted him as she was leaving the bank.”
Barry Shiller said that, as a result of the demonstrators’ actions, which led to the closure of the bank, “Students lose access to vitally needed funding.”
The arrangement with U.S. Bank last year yielded $167,000 for student programs. And the total partnership could have generated around $3 million in revenue.
He said, “As state funding to public higher education continues to decline, the loss of these funds is not inconsequential.”
However, others see this in a different light.
For Cres Velluci, the Vice Chair of the ACLU Board of Directors in Sacramento, who emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of that organization, this was a matter of chilling the notion of freedom of speech.
“These charges against peaceful demonstrators are yet another attempt to intimidate UC students by the 1 percent, and those who serve their bidding…in a way, these charges are as chilling as the pepper-spray incident at UC Davis,” he told the Vanguard. “Both actions were meant to dissuade students from exercising their rights.”
“And no one should kid themselves. This is not the District Attorney’s idea to prosecute,” he added. “No, that comes directly from the 1 percent, not the 99 percent. ‘Conspiracy,’ as it is being used here, is meant to scare protesters and chill their free speech rights. But it won’t have any more effect than it did against civil rights, or anti-war protesters decades ago.”
“Students should stand strong, plead not guilty and demand a jury trial,” Mr. Vellucci said.
Artem Raskin, who was not involved in this action but has been involved in other Occupy actions, noted the strategy by the university to frame activists as “the unruly children who deserve to be severely punished, but the University generously keeps its response ‘patient and measured.’ “
“Framing this as a debate over how ‘patient’ the University is, happens to be a convenient rhetorical strategy for the university, because it presupposes the activists’ guilt,” he told the Vanguard. “It makes it seem as though the blockade spontaneously arose out of a vacuum rather than being a justified reaction to a predatory deal between US Bank and the Regents.”
“The University is using the charges to prepare its case against a possible attempt by the bank to hold the university liable for the bank’s departure,” he said.
Mr. Raskin calls this “a frivolous charge, of course, since the contract explicitly states that the bank is responsible for its own security,” adding, “The bank accused the university of being too soft on the blockade, so the university urgently needs to ruin a dozen lives to dispel any suspicions of leniency.”
Mr. Shiller noted that, while both sides have threatened each other with lawsuits, neither has filed suit. Moreover, he said, “Talks continue with U.S. Bank on the future of the partnership.”
At the same time, other banks have expressed an interest to step in.
—David M. Greenwald reporting