The inevitable civil rights lawsuit over campus police pepper-spraying student demonstrators squarely in the face while they sat in a line on the UC Davis quad was filed Wednesday in Sacramento federal court.
Targeting Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, a number of her top staff and campus police, 19 students or former students claim excessive force was used to break up a peaceful assembly on Nov. 18 "because of the demonstration's message and who was delivering it."
A group had set up tents on the quad the day before and were engaged in a discussion and study of "university privatization, tuition hikes, and their relation to other issues and to consider what they could do to change conditions which had brought people together in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement," the complaint states.
Plaintiff David Buscho, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering major from San Rafael, was among those sprayed. He said Wednesday he was protesting tuition hikes and cuts in state funding for higher education.
His skin burned, he was blinded and became disoriented, and he vomited after inhaling the noxious orange irritant. "It was the most painful experience of my life," he said. "I felt like I was suffocating."
Video of the pepper-spray incident went viral on the Internet and became the subject of spirited national debate. Twelve plaintiffs claim they were doused; one of them joins seven others in maintaining they were illegally arrested.
The suit alleges that the U.S. Constitution was violated by the suppression of protected speech and assembly, by excessive force, and by the seizure and destruction of personal possessions, including tents, without due process.
The students seek unspecified monetary damages and an injunction barring future use of brutal tactics like the ones alleged.
Buscho is not suing for money, he insisted. Instead he hopes legal action will provide accountability and changes in how police respond to such demonstrations.
"I think people deserve to know what went wrong that day," he said. "I think it will be a constructive process."
The suit, filed by Sacramento attorney Mark Merin and attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, was randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez.
"Attorneys for the university and the plaintiffs have been talking," said UC Davis spokesman Barry Schiller. "We hope those conversations continue. In the meantime, we've not seen the lawsuit and therefore aren't in a position to comment on details."
According to the suit, campus police showed up in midafternoon in riot gear and ordered the students to disperse. When some remained seated, it says, Lt. John Pike calmly walked up and down the line spraying each one in the face, while scores of other officers looked on. An officer identified only as Doe 1 sprayed the demonstrators from behind, the suit says.
Ten people were arrested, jailed, and charged with failure to disperse, but Yolo County prosecutors declined to pursue the charges.
"The decision to declare the assemblage unlawful was made by" Katehi, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Fred Wood, Vice Chancellor of Administration and Resource Management John Meyer, and Chief of the UCD Police Department Annette Spicuzza, the suit alleges.
In the aftermath, Katehi said she never would have approved the use of riot gear and that Spicuzza was part of an emergency conference call before the incident at which she was told "it has to be peaceful, that anything else would not be acceptable."
Katehi said Spicuzza told her it was Pike who decided to use pepper spray. Spicuzza was placed on administrative leave along with two officers.
"When the cost of speech is a shot of blinding, burning pepper spray in the face, speech is not free," ACLU attorney Michael Risher said Wednesday.
Fatima Sbeih, 22, a plaintiff and a senior from Oakland studying international relations, said she was pepper-sprayed during protests in the Mideast. "I never expected what happened there to happen here," she said.