UNO Students Allege Police Misconduct
by Nathan Tempey
Sunday, Sep. 05, 2010 at 9:25 PM
The police version of the events surrounding the two arrests at the Wednesday September 1 University of New Orleans walkout protest is disputed by students. Witnesses of the altercations in the administration building claim campus police beat one of the two arrested students with batons as they aggressively cleared the ground floor. This article was written to appear in a special edition of the Driftwood (UNO student newspaper) which did not make it to press.
UNO Students Allege Police Misconduct During March On Administration Building
Two UNO students were arrested Wednesday morning, Sept. 1, charged with attacking university police officers including campus Police Chief Thomas Harrington.
The arrests occurred after a large student march protesting budget cuts veered into the administration building.
Both arrested men face three misdemeanor charges: two counts of battery of a police officer and one count of resisting arrest. Battery of a police officer carries a jail sentence of fifteen days to six months, while the maximum sentence for resisting arrest is six months.
Police and student accounts of the fracas that occurred around 10:50 in the building’s stairwell contrast sharply.
"I was maced and attacked! Why am I being arrested?" Matthew "Gideon" Smith yelled as he was pushed into the back of a police car by campus policeman Jesus Rojas, who Smith is accused of battering. A crowd of more than 50 surrounded the car chanting "Shame on you," "Let him go," and "What's the charge?"
The crowd parted after police announced that Smith would be hospitalized. Smith was taken to Health Services where he was treated for exposure to mace. Campus police then transported him to Orleans Parish Prison.
At a 2 p.m. press conference university Chancellor Timothy Ryan asserted that Smith is not a UNO student. Smith's girlfriend Carmen Torres, a third year MFA student, maintains that Smith is a second year arts administration graduate student attending classes while "he does the financial aid limbo."
Ryan also claimed to have no knowledge of police administering Mace at the press conference, suggesting, "Maybe he was just hot."
"I was blocking the way and telling [Smith] to go back the other way, and he pushed by me," Chief Harrington told reporters at the scene. "I said, 'You can’t go. Back down the stairs.' And he punched me. . . And when I grabbed him and said, 'you’re now under arrest,’ he hit me again and pulled me down the stairs, and that’s when I twisted my ankle."
After walking across the lot grimacing, Harrington briefly sat down on a curb before being loaded into an ambulance for treatment at Tulane Medical Center.
Footage on the WWL TV website shows Harrington punching an unidentified man in the head near the top of stairs and grabbing him around the neck momentarily as students reach to free him. The man looks to the camera and says, "He hit me." A woman says to Harrington, "You hit him first," and another person off camera says, "We saw it."
In the video Harrington grabs the man and pushes him down the remaining stairs to the bottom where several students argue with Harrington and a chant of "Let him go!" begins.
Matthew Smith appears in the same video standing in the foyer sipping a beverage just before several students grab the arm of the unidentified captive and disappear out the door with him to loud applause.
Before the camera cuts away Torres reaches around Harrington to retrieve Smith's cup. According to student witnesses, in 30 seconds or so missing from the video police began waving their batons and shoving students. Witnesses allege that when Smith pulled out a camera an officer shouted, "He has a camera!" after which four officers beat him to the ground with their batons and maced him.
"Until today, violence at student protests was just something I'd read about," student Tiffany Marceaux wrote in a blog post on bitchbuzz.com.
When the WWL-TV footage resumes, Smith shouts "Stop beating students!" as he is wrestled to the ground by Rojas and another officer. Two officers are visible behind them waving batons and shoving people out the door.
According to court records, campus police also accuse 5-foot-6-inch, 135-pound Peter Reed, a junior undergraduate women and gender studies major, of striking Harrington and another officer, Glenn Vigne, several times.
Reed says he was hospitalized for eight hours at LSU Interim Hospital for observation of his elevated heart rate before being transported back to Orleans Parish Prison by New Orleans police. According to Reed, Smith was denied hospital treatment despite repeated entreaties by both arrestees. The two were released on their own recognizance by Judge Frank Marullo late Wednesday.
"I certainly didn't punch anyone," Reed said Thursday. He declined to comment further, citing the ongoing legal proceedings. Reed's major was targeted in last year's round of budget cuts. No footage of his arrest appeared in local news coverage.
At Wednesday’s press conference Chancellor Ryan said Harrington did a “tremendous job in talking peacefully, trying to diffuse what could be an ugly situation.”
Harrington walked without limp, crutch or cane Thursday, according to a student in his class who requested anonymity. Harrington reportedly told his Thursday class that a total of six officers had been injured and two remained hospitalized. University spokesman Adam announced that day that X-rays revealed Harrington had not broken any bones.
Chief Harrington could not be reached for further comment.
The arrests punctuated a morning of anti-budget cut demonstrations that began early when seven students, current and recent graduates of UNO and other universities, barricaded themselves inside Milneburg Hall. According to University Spokesman Adam Norris, the occupiers were discovered when campus police attempted to unlock the building around 6:15 a.m.
Banners reading "STRIKE," "RESIST," and "OCCUPY," hung from the second floor windows and students and teachers queued outside until 8:45 when the occupiers emerged to cheers, escorted by Harrington, Provost Joe King and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Susan Krantz.
According to Dylan Barr, a UNO senior geography major and one of the occupiers, police entered through an open ground floor window, ran down the halls with guns drawn, ordered him and others to the ground and handcuffed Barr.
After receiving assurances that the demonstrators were unarmed and non-violent, Harrington agreed to summon campus administrators. The seven presented the administrators with demands including an end to budget cuts, re-hiring fired staff, and the restoration of free printing for students and faculty. Harrington arranged for students to use the amphitheater for a planned 10:30 am protest.
A rally convened on the quad beginning at 10 am, the time of the walk-out advertised by posters that began appearing on campus the previous Wednesday. The crowd swelled to as many as 200 students as speakers including alumni, students and student body president John Mineo spoke about the effects of the massive budget cuts in the past year and a half, and how to address the 35% cuts anticipated for next July.
"Our priorities are messed up. . . We have to say enough is enough. We have to hold everyone accountable," Kerry Bailey, a senior political science student said in a speech about Louisiana's disparity in expenditures between prison and education.
The march began moving at 10:15. Headed for the amphitheater, it turned without warning into the western door of the administration building past a lone campus police officer who stood by as students streamed inside.
Chants of "No more cuts" echoed off the walls as the procession made its way upstairs where the front marchers stopped to negotiate with the police officer posted outside the chancellor's office. The students at the front of the march had just agreed to be quiet as the march passed by second floor offices when a shout came from the back that someone was being tased in the stairwell.
"Despite the fact that no one ‘led’ the march or ‘organized’ the rally, the students had no trouble whatsoever in finding common ground surrounding the slow and systematic demolition of the only public university available to them in the city of New Orleans," a statement released by "New Orleans Students" said. The group is an anonymous organization that apparently includes the building occupiers.
"You can understand their frustration," Chancellor Ryan said about the demonstrations. "But we can’t deal with violence and we can’t deal with disruption of classroom activity."