Blog of Rights

Shot in the Face: Pepper-Sprayed U.C. Davis Students Tell Their Story

By Rebecca Farmer, ACLU of Northern California at 6:43pm

Fatima Sbeih was riding her bike after afternoon prayer, when she came across a large crowd of demonstrators, onlookers, and campus police in riot gear gathered on the quad at University of California, Davis. She joined them, sitting down on the quad to show that she was demonstrating nonviolently. Seated near her was David Buscho, a mechanical engineering student, participating in demonstrations for the first time. Like so many other Americans from U.C. Davis to Wall Street, Fatima and David were exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.

In a now infamous incident, U.C. Davis police walked up and down the line of seated protesters — including Fatima and David, dousing them with military-grade pepper spray in the face at close range.

The results of the university's investigation into how things went so wrong at the November 18 demonstration had been scheduled to be released today, after already being postponed. The Federated University Police Officers Association requested, and was granted, a court order to further delay the release of the information. The ACLU of Northern California is intervening in this case because the public has a right to this information.

In a new video, the students speak out:

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Fatima, an international relations major, had previously been a volunteer paramedic and afterwards helped tend to other demonstrators who were in pain. She had been tear-gassed at demonstrations in the Middle East but never imagined that something like that would happen here.

"The university needs to respect students' rights to make our voices heard, especially when we're protesting university policies that impact our studies, Fatima has said.

David was in searing pain after being spray directly in the face, and had trouble breathing because the pepper spray had gotten into his lungs. He has said that he knows that there are good people working in law enforcement — his stepfather is a police officer.

"So many of my friends can barely make ends meet and then another tuition hike was proposed. We had no idea there would be police in riot gear or that we would be pepper-sprayed because we were making our voices heard," says David.

Sarena Grossjan is studying Native-American studies and art. She is a photographer and had worked for the campus paper. She was also pepper-sprayed, and the effects lasted for weeks. Sarena had been demonstrating because additional tuition or fee hikes will mean that she mostly likely will not be able to afford to continue her studies. As it is, she can barely make ends meet. Her financial aid only covers tuition and books.  She is taking five courses this semester, and sleeps on friends' couches because she cannot afford rent.

The ACLU of Northern California is representing Fatima, David and Sarena, along with 14 other students and two alumni, in a lawsuit against U.C. Davis and individual police officers. That lawsuit seeks to determine why the university violated the demonstrators' state and federal constitutional rights and seeks better policies that will prevent repetition of such response to nonviolent protest. The lawsuit charges that university administration officials and the campus police department failed to properly train and supervise officers, resulting in series of constitutional violations against the demonstrators.

The United States was founded on a strong tradition of protest, protected by the First Amendment. Two hundred and thirty-five years later, that tradition is alive and well. Check out our Know Your Rights: Demonstrations and Protests guide for more information about your rights. Afterall, as Michael Risher, a staff attorney at ACLU-NC said, "When the cost of speech is a shot of blinding, burning pepper spray in the face, speech is not free."

You can support student protestors' rights by signing our letter encouraging colleges and universities across the country to protect the right to free speech on campus.

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