CSUN protesters’ trial pending eleven months later

Black Student Union secretary Justin Marks, protested against education budget cuts on the corner of Reseda Boulevard and Prairie Street in Northridge March 4, 2010. Sundial File Photo

Almost a year after last March’s “Day of Action” protests, in which an American Indian studies associate professor broke her arm, the trial for the students who were arrested has still not begun.  They appear in court today for a pre-trial hearing.

CSUN students Anthony Garcia, Jose Gomez, Justin Marks and Jonnae Thompson and Los Angeles Valley College student Angel Guzman are charged with failure to disperse the scene of a riot or illegal assembly, a misdemeanor offense.  Additionally, Garcia is charged with interfering with a peace officer.  Gomez is also charged with interfering with a peace officer as well as misdemeanor battery.

Conflicting accounts from police reports, students and Karren Baird-Olson, the professor who was injured at the protest, complicate the matter.

In prior negotiations, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich offered to drop charges against everyone but Gomez.  The CSUN students refused the deal, choosing to defend themselves collectively.  Michael Lee, lead attorney, said they have filed for an informal diversion, a process that suspends criminal proceedings and avoids a plea while the defendants complete requirements set by the court.

Volunteers from the National Lawyers Guild are representing the students.  In a written statement to the National Lawyers Guild, Lee said,  “The campus police … had the audacity to arrest and charge one of her (Baird-Olson) fellow demonstrators (Gomez) with assault, as he stepped in to help her, and blame her injuries on the demonstrators.”  He added, “In effect, we have an assault case where the victim denies the assault, but the case was filed anyway.”

In a letter obtained by the Daily Sundial through a California Public Records Act request, Dr. Harry Hellenbrand, provost and vice president for academic affairs asked Trutanich not to prosecute the students who were arrested.

“The students did transgress,” he wrote.  “But they did not do so for amusement of selfish gain.  They did so for civic benefit… So, as the chief academic officer at CSUN, I respectfully request that your office and the court not find for counts that can damage the students’ records.  At most, city attorney hearings would seem to be an appropriate expression of legal action…”

As the March 4, 2010 rally that was organized by the California Faculty Association was winding down in front of the Oviatt Library that evening, another protest was taking place less than a mile west of campus at the intersection of Reseda Boulevard and Prairie Street, where hundreds of protesters had gathered. About 30 to 40 protesters were sitting in the middle of the intersection, according to CSUN department of police services reports, obtained by the Daily Sundial.  Garcia, Gomez, Guzman, Marks, Thompson and Baird-Olson were among the protesters.

Police reports offer different takes on what happened in the intersection.

“As officers continued moving the skirmish line eastward, one of the main agitators (Jose Gomez) was selected … as someone who was inciting the crowd to an unsafe level,” one report states.  As the arrest team moved in to arrest Gomez, he “…grabbed an elderly female standing next to him (Baird-Olson) by the waist with his left arm and pulled her with him,” the report continues.

It does not say how Gomez was inciting the crowd or what constitutes an unsafe level.  Citing the ongoing investigation, the CSUN department of police services declined to comment.

“Several of the protesters began to spit on the officers on the skirmish line,” the report says.  “A second agitator, (Anthony Garcia), moved forward and attempted to pull (Gomez) away from the arrest team.”  Police officers were able to pull (Gomez) behind the skirmish line and place him under arrest, the report continues.  (Garcia) was also placed under arrest.

Baird-Olson’s upper-arm was broken around this time, based on reports.

Another report of the day’s events says:

“About 1829 hours we began an eastward push of the skirmish line to remove protesters from Reseda Boulevard, which was successful in moving the protesters to the east curb line.  During this period, five arrests (Garcia, Gomez, Guzman, Marks, Thompson) were made of protesters who failed to peaceably disperse … and one person who sustained an injury (Baird-Olson) during the arrest of an agitant.”

Yet another report states, “As the skirmish line pushed forward and arrest team entered the crowd to grab the agitator, I looked over and saw the large group of protesters pushing toward the officers and the officers pushing back.  (Baird-Olson) was stuck in between the officers and agitator/protesters.  Suddenly, (Baird-Olson) fell forward between two unknown skirmish line officers and hit the ground.”

The report continues:  “At this point, I ran over to see what happened and saw (Baird-Olson) being stepped on by protesters who continued their attempt to move forward in an apparent effort to push the officers back.”

The report says the captain attempted to locate witnesses at the scene of the accident but was not successful.

Gomez disputes the police’s accounts.

“I was not agitating the crowd,” he said.  “We were chanting ‘Peaceful protest’ the whole time.  And at no point did anyone spit on the police.”

He also disputes that he fell on Baird-Olson.

“The claim that I fell on her is not true,” he said.  “I didn’t hit the floor until they grabbed me and pulled me behind the skirmish line.”

He said he moved in to help Baird-Olson when she was injured.  He also said he was hit with a baton three times.

Garcia also disputes police services’ reports.

“At no point did I try to pull him (Gomez) away,” he said.  “The professor was on the ground and Jose (Gomez) was on top of her.  I was trying to help Jose up, off the professor.”

Garcia also disputes the police’s statements that protesters stepped on Baird-Olson.

“I was next to her,” he said.  “At no point did protesters step on her.”

Protesters did not spit on the police, Garcia added.

Baird-Olson also rejects police reports that her injuries were caused by Gomez or fellow protesters.

“They (police) have fabricated and lied,” she said.  “He (Gomez) saved my life.”

Hellenbrand said the university did not discipline the students for violations of the student conduct code.  The code, which all students are required to abide by, states that students can be disciplined for behavior that disrupts or obstructs university-related activities, or participating in activities that disrupt the normal operations of the university or the free flow of traffic on or leading to campus property.

“Our feeling was the overall spirit of the march was one we supported,” Hellenbrand said.  “We felt the spirit was strong enough to override minor infractions against the campus code.”

Related stories:

CSUN participating in a ‘Day of Action’

CSUN’s protest and walkout from Thursday recapped

Professor injured during the March 4 protest speaks

Protesters head to court to support CSUN students arrested during March 4 walkout