Yesterday an OWS-affiliated (whatever that actually means) crowd tried to occupy what functions as a quad at Berkeley, with tents in which to stay a while. Campus police and Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies arrived in armor looking like Darth Vaders, cleared the tents away by force, pulled down signs, and brutalized a bunch of students and faculty. Getting jabbed with the end of a police baton held in two hands is not a nudge, as the AP inexcusably described it, and neither is getting grabbed by the hair and thrown to the ground for convenient placement of handcuffs. Brutalized is the word, though the police have lately been trained to injure people in ways that don’t show in TV interviews (no bleeding scalps or bloody noses! no broken long bones: cracked ribs hurt plenty, and we don’t want pictures of victims in hospital beds or casts). There were 39 arrests, including a professor and 22 students. Some of the videos I watched last night and this morning have been taken down by YouTube, but there are several here that will make you sick.
Our chancellor, who is here responsible for an episode that is totally inept as both leadership and public relations, has had the remarkable good fortune of being able to hide behind his opposite number at Penn State all week (and do our students ever look better than theirs). He circulated a letter to everyone yesterday that may reach a new high in official cowardice and mendacity (but note exception below). It presents a stupefyingly lame justification for the “no encampments” order he issued, and blandly identifies standing unarmed in a row with arms linked – you remember, the way MLK and the freedom riders did – as “not non-violent”. Then he adds the truly incredible “we regret all injuries, to protestors and police, that resulted from this effort.” Injuries to police? Excuse me: AFAIK there were no injuries to police: the police, as Chili Palmer says, were the ones inflicting the pain, period. And finally, we get the inevitable, scurrilous passive voice diffusion of responsibility into thin air, “the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy.”
I have never been completely comfortable with the California campus protests of the last couple of years.
First, I wish they were directed to all the outrageous injury Republicans in California have inflicted on the whole state, from abused women to kids in school to convicts jammed into nearly medieval prisons, and less focused on the hit to student pocketbooks and faculty paychecks from budget cuts. More funding for public higher education is a legitimate goal on public policy grounds, and it’s fair for people to strike for more pay, or to demonstrate for street repairs in their own neighborhood. Still, it would look less self-serving if it weren’t coming from here, certainly if it weren’t the primary element of the protestors’ discourse. Bad as things are in our colleges and universities, a lot of people in California are hurting a lot more than we are, and we should be their advocates before being ours. Unemployment in California is a brutal 12%, but my dear students, it’s only a third of that for college graduates, what all of you will be.
Tactically, I do not understand targeting the Regents, as though they appropriate state funds. Let’s be clear about this: the devastation of the public sector in California in the current era comes from Republicans. Not “the legislature”, not “political gridlock”, not “partisanship”: Republicans, in county government, in the legislature, and in the governor’s office, playing out the self-mutilation voters (but especially Republican voters) have inflicted by initiative legislation. It is not non-partisan and it is not on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand: the Republican Party in California, and only the Republican party, has become the party of greed, ignorance, and smirking insensitivity to the pain of the poor and the welfare of our children and grandchildren. We would do better with Regents less exclusively chosen from the comfortable and well-fixed, and with better leadership at the university and campus level, but the outrage, marches, and demonstrations should be partisan, and target the place whence the evil comes, not the conveyor belt that delivers it to campus .
I’m not clear about the limits of police rights to beat and arrest unarmed people, who pose no imminent threat of injury to persons or property, just because they are disobeying an order to disperse. Can a cop just order you to go anywhere any time, and enforce his instructions by force?
Incidentally, some of my colleagues and some students also seem to be a little unclear about what civil disobedience really means. It does not mean you have a right to violate the law and not be punished for it just because you are motivated by a principle or a strongly felt desire; it means (and the chancellor did get this right) you are willing to be punished according to the law for the violation (and when things get especially ugly, to be injured without fighting back) in order to focus moral force on the oppressors. In fact, this is what a lot of the protestors at Sproul did: the prof who was arrested put her arms out for cuffs and said “arrest me!” but apparently the opportunity to practice the hair-pull-throw-to-the-ground-and-drag on a woman who seems, in the video, to weigh fully half as much as each of the cops pulling her around, was irresistible. (
I watched this video before it was taken down; I hope it reappears at some point, [update: it’s in this article] and I hope the Alameda Sheriff uses it for some attitude adjustment among his officers. They sure looked like a bunch of thugs yesterday.)