Staff volunteers act as impartial observers at campus demonstrations

10 October 2001 | In 1964, during the Free Speech Movement, a group of campus faculty, disturbed by reports of excessive force at campus protests, decided to attend demonstrations as neutral witnesses who could offer credible testimony if there were conflicting versions of what took place. Former chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, then a junior faculty member, was one of the original faculty participants.

The observer program was revived in the 1980s, during the student anti-apartheid movement, and continues today under the auspices of the Office of Student Life, which recruits, trains and coordinates a team of staff volunteers from across the campus. It is one of the few such campus programs in the nation.

Thirty-seven volunteers are currently in the program; more are needed. Participants attend a two-hour training, on topics including neutrality, report writing, police practices, complaint procedures, safety issues and site logistics.

“We show them a video of a fairly recent arrest scene, and ask them to write exactly what they saw,” says Student Affairs Officer Hal Reynolds, who manages the observer program. “People are just amazed at what they didn’t notice.”

As head of program, Reynolds has witnessed at least 200 campus demonstrations over the past decade; only a small fraction lead to a complaint or disciplinary, civil or criminal action. When they do, staff observers’ written records are often invaluable for clarifying what took place.

The observers’ role is to watch and report impartially on the conduct of both students and police; they do not interpret or evaluate actions, provide information, give advice, or mediate a conflict.

Diane Wear, an administrative analyst in the Office for History of Science and Technology, has been part of the program for five years. “You just get better and better,” she says of her ability to note the important details — from the number of police officers involved to the length of a student’s hair or what a T-shirt said.

A longtime peace activist herself, Wear gets personal satisfaction in seeing young people grow, with time, in their ability to think on their feet and get a point across.

She recalls one student who at first would get emotional and provocative, and gradually grew more skilled. “You’re standing there speaking what needs to be spoken, in a way that is principled, but not in-your-face confrontation.”

As an observer, Wear says, “I see a lot of young people on campus learning some really valuable techniques, and taking the opportunity to do some very creative things.”

Observers must be in the PPSM or MSP job classification. For information, contact Hal Reynolds in the Office of Student Life at or 642-6772.


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