Striking UCSC graduate students.
Striking UCSC graduate students and supporters sit in a circle at the intersection of Bay and High streets, in front of the campus entrance, on Feb. 10, 2020.
(Melanie Dickinson / Contributed)
Higher Ed

Doctoral student sues UCSC police over alleged battery at strike demonstration

Sabrina Shirazi, a fifth-year doctoral candidate, says she was left concussed and suffering physical and emotional damage injuries that continue to impact her life almost a year later.

A doctoral student at UC Santa Cruz is suing campus police, claiming she was battered by officers and left concussed during a demonstration last year.

Sabrina Shirazi is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in UCSC’s ecology and evolutionary biology department. In a civil rights lawsuit filed Jan. 7 in federal court, Shirazi alleges UCSC police repeatedly struck her head and body with batons at a Feb. 10 rally at the campus entrance — the first day of weeks of demonstrations in support of a graduate student strike.

Sabrina Shirazi
(Nick Gonzales / UC Santa Cruz)

She was left concussed and suffering physical and emotional damage injuries that continue to impact her life almost a year later, the suit alleges.

“I spent the next month in bed, unable to even sit upright,” Shirazi said in a statement distributed by an attorney. “I have lived with physical and emotional pain every day since then. I still don’t have the strength to get through a full day of normal activity. Several times, I questioned whether I could complete my Ph.D.”

Former chief of the UCSC police department Nader Oweis and UCSC police lieutenant Greg Flippo are named in the lawsuit, along with several officers whose identity the suit is seeking to discover.

Oweis left UCSC in the fall and is now chief of police at Sonoma State University, where a spokesperson declined to comment or forward an inquiry to him.

UCSC had just received the complaint and was still reviewing its claims Thursday, according to campus spokesperson Scott Hernandez-Jason.

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“Our initial review indicates that the account presented by the plaintiff is not an accurate description of the incident,” Hernandez-Jason said in a statement. “However, we will address these allegations in the course of the litigation.”

According to a complaint filed by Shirazi’s attorneys, the incident was preceded by the arrest of another woman attempting to deliver water to demonstrators during the afternoon of Feb. 10.

In response, demonstrators gathered and chanted by the police car, the complaint states, before officers charged into the crowd “without warning, hitting and shoving people with their billy clubs.”

Video of the event appears to show a crowd blocking the path of a police car before a number of officers rushed in brandishing batons.

Shirazi’s complaint states that she was never blocking the police car. The crowd was never ordered to disperse, it states, and police never tried to arrest her.

Several officers “surrounded her and clubbed her repeatedly on the head, neck, shoulder, and body,” the complaint alleges.

An image distributed by Shirazi’s attorneys purports to show an officer raising a baton in the air in front of her.

An image distributed by attorneys for Sabrina Shirazi.
An image distributed by attorneys for Sabrina Shirazi purports to show a police officer raising a baton in front of her at a Feb. 10, 2020, demonstration at the UCSC entrance.
(Stephan Bitterwolf / Contributed)

Shirazi was left concussed and with “extensive soft tissue injuries” and unable to work for weeks, the suit alleges. When she returned to work, it alleges that her capacity for research was diminished, and that her injuries continue to impact her.

The complaint alleges the officers’ actions constitute assault and battery, as well as civil rights violations that came at the direction of Oweis and Flippo.

“This was a really traumatic incident,” said Rachel Lederman, one of Shirazi’s attorneys. “And it was just completely unnecessary, unjustified, illegal use of force — no reason to treat her that way, and it’s very disturbing that campus police would inflict this kind of brutality on a student at their own university.”

The lawsuit is seeking compensation for alleged impacts to Shirazi’s health and career, attorney fees, and punitive damages.

Calling for a pay raise for graduate workers to afford high housing costs, the labor action behind the demonstration began in Dec. 2019. The Feb. 10 rally led off weeks of demonstrations that gained a national media profile and fueled a wider labor movement across the UC system.

Graduate students never received the pay increase they sought. But UCSC responded to their demands with several concessions, including a new $2,500 annual housing stipend. UCSC also responded by firing dozens of teaching assistants for continuing to withhold students’ grades into the spring — reinstating them under a deal with their union during the summer.

Support for the strike dwindled as the pandemic swept through the nation in the spring, though its fallout continues.

Late last year, UCSC’s decision to suspend a single graduate student for his actions in the demonstrations prompted a renewed outcry and a Dec. 2 demonstration at the home of UCSC’s chancellor.