California Police Used Military Surveillance Tech at Grad Student Strike

UC Santa Cruz police utilized military surveillance equipment to surveil and police the graduate student 'wildcat' strike earlier this year.
May 15, 2020, 7:24pm
Grad student strikers at UC Santa Cruz. Documents have revealed that California police used military surveillance tech at strikes.

The California National Guard provided military surveillance equipment to the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Police Department in order to surveil and police the UC Santa Cruz graduate student wildcat strike earlier this year, documents acquired through the California Public Records Act show.

California National Guard, the state’s federally funded military force, provided so-called “friendly force trackers,” a military surveillance technology used to track U.S. troops in military combat, to monitor pickets, according to emails dated February 11 and 13. Police responding to the strike also had access to LEEP, a federal surveillance portal operated by the FBI. The emails show that law enforcement was monitoring student protest groups and social media to plan its response.

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The California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) also assisted with law enforcement response.

The unauthorized wildcat strike began in early February when teaching assistants at UC Santa Cruz walked off the job and withheld grades to demand an $1,412 increase to their cost of living stipend. The so-called Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) strike then spread to UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, and UC Davis, and protests broke out at nearly every campus in the University of California system. In late February, UC Santa Cruz fired more than 70 striking workers who were withholding grades from their teaching appointments.

A spokesperson for UC Santa Cruz told Motherboard that the trackers had been used “to know the location of on-duty officers who were helping keep people safe. To infer anything else about the use of the trackers would be erroneous.”

“Throughout the strike, UC Santa Cruz police officers were focused on supporting the safety of our community on and off campus and protecting the rights of everyone in our campus community, including those engaged in expressive activity,” the spokesperson continued, while also calling the action an "unsanctioned strike."

Emails show that Cal OES provided extensive support to UC Santa Cruz police throughout the strike, including a mobile command van.

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After Bernie Sanders tweeted on February 19 in support of striking graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, a Cal OES officer emailed the California State Threat Assessment Center (STAC) commander Eli Owen to request assistance to “verify/validate Mr. Sanders schedule,” writing that “initial intel suggested that Mr. Sanders may appear on the UC Santa Cruz campus.”

The Cal OES official claimed of Sanders’ tweet and the possibility of his visit to the campus, “Check this out. UCSC is vying to be ground zero for the 2020 election. This is the shot across the bow.”

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In regards to Sanders’ tweet, the UC Santa Cruz spokesperson said, “with Bernie Sanders tweeting about the unsanctioned strike, UC Santa Cruz was paying attention to his publicly posted campaign schedule so that it could begin planning in case he chose to visit the campus. A visit by a presidential candidate would create significant impacts to our campus and surrounding community.”

The request for assistance came from UC Santa Cruz Police Chief Nader Oweis. Funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security, the California Threat Assessment Center is a “fusion center,” set up to monitor terrorism and other extremist activities.

The emails—and the surveillance tech—show that in many ways law enforcement treated this as something like a military operation. One morning briefing sent to law enforcement discusses how "intel suggests protesters want to further escalate today … if they try to take gates, LE will give up main but will hold the West Gate to ensure ingress/egress." Other emails talk about a "skirmish."

“The university acts like they don’t have any money and can’t afford to pay people living wages, but the amount of money they spent on this is such overkill,” Veronica Hamilton, a PhD student in Psychology who was fired from her teaching appointment, told Motherboard.

“The police weren’t around for the safety of protestors. They were there for the repression of protesters. Everyone should be so angry that they would bring in the National Guard and use FBI information systems.”

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The graduate students who have been fired from their teaching positions for withholding grades could lose their tuition remission, making it impossible for them to return to their PhD programs. The University of California’s graduate student union filed two unfair labor practice complaints in February and March, which could overturn the firings.

“We’re in a small surf town and here they are spending $300,000 a day to police grad students who are just calling out wage disparities and rent burden. The university sees that as a threat for them and a reason to engage in violence,” Carlos Cruz, a UC Santa Cruz PhD student who has been suspended for two years for his participation in the strike, told Motherboard.

Cruz, a first generation college student, says that without his teaching position, he will not qualify for tuition remission and will have to leave the program. During pickets and rallies, Cruz, who frequently led rallies in front of a megaphone, said police officers approached him reciting his full name, date of birth, and hometown in what felt like an attempt to intimidate him.

Another graduate student alleges that an officer clubbed her over the head during a demonstration on February 10, causing a concussion and other injuries.

Throughout the strike, which was sparked over the cost of housing in Santa Cruz and began on the beachside campus on February 6, the University of California Santa Cruz Police Department relied on support of law enforcement from nine other University of California police departments as well as the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

UC Santa Cruz has closed its campus during the pandemic, but continued to conduct summonses and disciplinary proceedings in May, accusing graduate students of “theft” and “forgery” for removing grades from the university’s digital gradebook Canvas. Many of the suspended students lost access to student health and emergency services as the pandemic broke out.

“I worry that the students who were fired and disciplined won’t come back. It’s going to eviscerate the activist community and the general graduate student community, especially during Coronavirus,” Hannah Newman, a PhD student in literature, who was suspended, and has been denied her $2,500 housing stipend for the semester, told Motherboard. “UCSC is not a viable place for people who don’t have family support or solid savings.”

All the documents used to report this story can be found here.