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UC Davis Agrees to $1 Million Settlement in ‘Occupy’ Pepper Spray Incident

In a victory for victims of police brutality during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration last year, the University of California, Davis has agreed to pay $1 million to students pepper-sprayed by campus police.

The iconic image of a UC Davis police officer unloading a canister of pepper spray into the faces of peacefully seated student protesters became an international symbol of police brutality during the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. Now, university officials will pay $30,000– about the cost of a years’ education at the school– to each of the 21 sprayed students on whose behalf the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that $100,000 is also being set aside to pay other students who can prove that they were also pepper-sprayed during the November 18 demonstration, and UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi will issue a written apology to students and recent alumni. UC Davis has admitted no wrongdoing.

The settlement also calls on university officials to cooperate with civil liberties groups to improve police response to future demonstrations.

After legal and other costs are factored in, the final cost to the university could be in excess of $2 million.

Last November 18, UC Davis campus police were dispatched to remove tents set up on the university quad by students as part of the Occupy Wall Street protests sweeping the nation and the world. Whereas Occupy Wall Street focused on corporate greed and economic inequality, the UC Davis demonstrations also targeted rising tuition costs and the school’s financial ties to corporations.

A groups of students ignored police orders to leave the quad, with some of them sitting down, linking arms and peacefully refusing to disperse despite repeated warnings from police. Then, Lt. John Pike and another campus officer unleashed canisters of pepper spray into the faces of the seated students. Two students were hospitalized, one of them with chemical burns, as a result of the police assault. Eleven others were treated by paramedics at the scene. Ten protesters were arrested.

“Pepper spray is unimaginable painful,” student Fatima Sbeih, a victim of the November 18 spraying, told the Sacramento Bee after the announcement of the settlement on Wednesday. “You feel like your eyes are boiling, your skin is boiling.”

In addition to the excruciating physical pain caused by the spraying, some students also experiences intense emotional trauma, including panic attacks and nightmares, after the assault.

Sbeih, who claims the university “silenced” her in the wake of the incident, says she ultimately hopes that the campus will become “police free.”

University of California officials released a statement in which they said they “believe the proposed settlement is in the best interests” of the university.

“The university has done everything possible to demonstrate accountability for the events of last November 18, and a commitment to seeing that nothing like it ever occurs again,” UC Davis spokesman Barry Shiller said in a statement.

Enosh Baker, a student who was sprayed during the incident, said he believed the school “got off fairly easily.”

Baker pointed to the fact that the university admitted no wrongdoing and the Lt. Pike, who was fired by the school, was ultimately cleared of illegal use of force by the county district attorney.

But Michael Risher, an attorney for the ACLU– which will be paid $250,000 in legal fees for representing the student plaintiff– hailed the settlement.

“If the First Amendment means anything, it’s that students should be able to exercise their free-speech rights on their college campus without being afraid of police violence,” Risher told the Chronicle.

“What happened on November 18 was among the worst examples of police violence against student demonstrators that we’ve seen in a generation. The settlement should be a wake-up call for other universities and police departments.”

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