U.C. gives degree to pro-Palestinian accused of biting cop

Eight months after Roberto Hernandez allegedly bit a police officer, U.C. Berkeley has opted to award the pro-Palestinian activist his bachelor's degree.

The Chicano studies major was informed of the decision last month in a message left on his telephone answering machine. The degree was released with little fanfare, coming during finals week and in the midst of the campus newspaper's winter hiatus.

"The way they went about it was very sneaky. They were just trying to sneak the process through again," said Hernandez, who is currently enrolled as an ethnic studies graduate student at Berkeley.

"It's good my degree is released, but I really don't know how this is going to play out. I can't really rest until it's all done with."

Hernandez, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, is the most visible of the "Wheeler Hall 32," a group of pro-Palestinian protesters who seized that classroom building on April 9, 2002. The building occupation capped a loud anti-Israel rally that, infuriatingly for campus Jews, came on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The university claims Hernandez bit officer Billy Brashear on the hand while being removed from the building. Hernandez denies the charge.

U.C. Berkeley has a policy of not releasing the degree of anyone with a student conduct hearing pending. But Assistant Chancellor John Cummins said the process is taking so long that it would have been unfair to hold onto Hernandez's diploma any longer, especially considering he is still a U.C. Berkeley student and subject to future punishment.

"After it became apparent that this thing was dragging on for so long, we thought it would be really punitive to continue to do this, as we still maintain jurisdiction over him," said Cummins.

The hearing process has taken so long because of persistent bickering between lawyers for the protesters and the university over the admissibility of the university's evidence.

Following factual findings of innocence for the protesters in criminal court last year, their arrest records were sealed following a deal with Stuart Hing, the deputy district attorney of Alameda County. While Hing has since testified he only intended for the young protesters to keep their arrest records clean, the move rendered much of the evidence inadmissible for the student council hearings.

As a result, a hearing for Hernandez was abruptly canceled after several days last fall, and is only scheduled to be restarted on Feb. 14. Enough questions about evidence remain that Hernandez's lawyers confirmed that they would consider legally contesting any finding unfavorable to their client.

Cummins said video tapes and arrest records that were introduced in Hernandez's first hearing are now off-limits, but he believes eyewitness testimony from Brashear and others is permissible.

Dan Siegel, one of several National Lawyers Guild attorneys providing free counsel to the protesters, says, however, that even eyewitness testimony is inadmissible.

Proponents of Hernandez said the university's decision is the first step in its quiet disposal of the case. Cummins strongly denied this, maintaining the hearing will be held in two weeks.

Adam Weisberg, the executive director of Berkeley Hillel, said he respects the university's decision to release Hernandez's degree since the school has demonstrated to him it is taking the disciplinary process seriously. He blames Hing, however, for pulling the rug out from under the university.

"Unfortunately, for anyone who was there, it's very clear the university's pursuit of these cases is completely legitimate. But it has been denied access to the evidence it needs to prove it. And I don't think the university can be blamed for that," he said.

With his degree now in good standing, Hernandez retroactively received 10 credits for the courses he took last fall semester. Denied any financial aid while his degree was in limbo, he will be subsidized in the future and, Cummins believes, be given the money he would have received for the fall semester.

Hernandez said he's considered leaving U.C. Berkeley, but wouldn't want to go to a lower quality school.

"Yeah, they've been messing with me so much, maybe I don't want nothing to do with them no more. But if I leave, am I giving up? But the other part of it is, Berkeley's ethnic studies department is perhaps the best one in the country," said Hernandez,

Even if he is completely exonerated by his school, Hernandez went on to say he would consider taking legal action for what he felt was mean-spirited behavior toward him.

"The withholding of the degree — in a sense, that was punishment already without me going to the hearing," he said.

"So who knows? There's a good chance I might be taking this to court. Not based on the punishment, but based on all the other things that have happened."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.