Thursday, November 17, 2011

When authorities equate disobedience with violence

Much has been written about the Occupy movements in San Francisco's East Bay Area, but I think there's still room for further exploration of the core principles at stake in the relations of government (broadly speaking) to the Occupy protests. I'll frame this exploration with a remarkable stream of morphing statements emanating from the office of UC Berkeley's Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau.

Many readers will already have seen on YouTube video showing riot-geared UC Police (UCPD) striking and swinging at unarmed, non-violent students on Wednesday of last week (9 Nov 2011). Frankly, I find this video almost unwatchable, but if you haven't seen it or its cousins yet, I'm afraid you should.

I wasn't at the scene of these beatings, so I'll defer to UCB Professor Celeste Langan, of the English Department, to contextualize the video. From her 13 Nov blog post Why I Got Arrested with Occupy Cal--and How:

The organizers of Occupy Cal asked those who were willing to stay and link arms to protect those who were attempting to set up the encampment; I chose to do so. I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said "Arrest me! Arrest me!" But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor--a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp -- but also unnecessary and unjustified.

In shocking contrast, here is Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's initial description of what went down on Sproul Plaza, excerpted from e-mail sent to all faculty, students, and staff on 10 Nov 2011 (emphasis added):

We are not equipped to manage the hygiene, safety, space, and conflict issues that emerge when an encampment takes hold and the more intransigent individuals gain control. [...] It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers' efforts to remove the tent. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.

There is no telling what the Chancellor was thinking. He was in Asia, distant from events, necessarily relying on his subordinates in the administration ... who seem to have misled him. Nonetheless, Birgeneau's equation of "linking arms" with "not non-violent" acts is a statement of principle, not an analysis of the events of 9 Nov. It is hard not to hold him responsible. Professor Langan takes the Chancellor to task eloquently on this point in the blog post from which I quoted, above.

Law Professor Jonathan Simon comments on this type of absurd equation of peaceful protest with criminal violence, in relation to Occupy Oakland and Occupy Wall Street (at Zuccotti Park), in his blog post Governing the Occupy Movement through Crime (also cross-posted as a UC Berkeley hosted post on politics and law):

In many cities, including most prominently Oakland and New York, tent encampments on public spaces by the Occupy Wall Street movement have been cleared in early morning raids by police (read about the Oakland situation here). This time, at least, police violence seems to have been minimal. But what is regrettable is the use by city leaders of the lame excuse that "crime" problems necessitated the end of the encampments. It may be that the Occupy Wall street movement must generate new meaningful actions to build its momentum, but the claims that the encampments were generating unacceptable levels of crime is both false and reflexive.

To the latter point first. The gist of the argument behind this blog, and the book, Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear, is that political leaders facing a chronic legitimacy deficit since the late 1960s have frequently used protecting citizens from crime as the least problematic way of justifying the exercise of power.

I think that this business of beating non-violent protesters to protect (other) citizens can be boiled down to a simple sound byte: across the political spectrum of elected and appointed officials in the United States, from former POtUS George W. Bush to, in last week's unfortunate missive, Berkeley's Chancellor Birgeneau, authorities want us to believe that disobedience and violence are the same thing.

If this weren't a family blog, I'd say f*ck that sh*t.

When Chancellor Birgeneau returned from his trip to Asia, he wrote to the campus again. Four days later he'd begun to spin a very different tune. From his e-mail of 14 Nov to the campus community, excerpting for the sake of brevity:

[...] it was only yesterday that I was able to look at a number of the videos that were made of the protests on November 9.  These videos are very disturbing.  The events of last Wednesday are unworthy of us as a university community. [...]

Most certainly, we cannot condone any excessive use of force against any members of our community. I have asked Professor Jesse Choper, our former Dean of Law, and current Chair of the Police Review Board (PRB) to launch immediately a review of the police actions of last Wednesday and Thursday morning.  [...]

We believe that we can best move forward by granting amnesty from action under the Student Code of Conduct to all Berkeley students who were arrested and cited solely for attempting to block the police in removing the Occupy Cal encampment on Wednesday, November 9.  We will do so immediately.

I believe that as a campus community, we can and must join together and focus on our common goals - inducing the state to reinvest in public education, working to repeal Prop. 13, finding a way to reverse Prop. 209, and instituting reforms that will help California regain its status as the door to the American Dream through public higher education. [...] We share the aspirations of the Occupy movement for a better America.  I am confident that as a campus community we will find a peaceful and productive way forward.

As a watcher of Berkeley campus politics from my student days in the late 1970s through now (I am currently a staff employee at Cal), let me assure you that this is an extraordinary reversal for a Chancellor. Amnesty for student protestors is not granted easily or arbitrarily on our campus, or by this administration. I would not like to be the idjut who told Birgeneau-in-Asia that matters were so dire that he ought to conflate violence with peaceful civil disobedience. He's got to be pissed that he was forced to pull such a clumsy about-face. Maybe not as pissed as Professor Langan or student and community activists, but plenty angry nonetheless. Perhaps the object of his ire is UC Police Captain Margo Bennett, who emitted this same absurdity to the SF Chronicle in advance of Birgeneau's e-mail. Or perhaps she was toeing a line drawn by the same administrator who misled the Chancellor. We may never know.

On Tuesday (15 Nov) Occupy Cal called a general strike and a day of "Open University" instruction, in which professors and grad students were encouraged to hold their classes en plein air. Thousands of people turned out for discussions on Sproul Plaza, a "convergence" at noon (pictured in my photos here in this post, props to the band in the one a couple of paragraphs up for their punk-rock rendition of Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind). This mass of protestors held an afternoon march through downtown to Berkeley City College. Back at Sproul in the evening, a large general assembly voted to re-establish the encampment on Sproul Plaza. Then Professor Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, gave the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture to at least 5,000 peaceful attendees -- some put the crowd as high as 10,000. (It was not Reich's strongest speech, but that's another blog post; see his 6 Big GOP Lies About The Economy on YouTube for Reich at his finest.)

But what I really want to circle back to is the email message -- a third one now in the course of five days! -- sent by Berkeley's intrepid Chancellor at 5:07 pm on the day of the general strike, Tuesday. In its entirety this time:

To the Campus Community:

We all share the distress and anger at the State of California's disinvestment in public higher education.


The issues require bold action and time is short. I will inform you of the time and place as soon as possible.

Robert J. Birgeneau,

The all-caps are his.

Yes, the Chancellor is calling for a forum and a debate. It's not a "radical" tactic by any stretch of the imagination; but the call is in keeping with an academic milieu, with his leadership position, and with Birgeneau's 2009 call in the Washington Post, co-authored with Vice-Chancellor Frank Yeary, for deep recommitment to public higher education, funded by the Federal government.

Let's hope also that his latest call for "bold action" signals the Chancellor's reassessment of his absurd conflation of disobedience with violence, of five days before.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
Bioneers and Occupy Wall Street
Birth of a movement?


  1. Thanks for the round-up of Birgeneau-speak ... Almost brought himself to apologize, it sounds like. Though couldn't go all the way there?

    I'm grateful to the Occupy folks for the life they're showing in this deadened country. If there's a thing we disagree on I haven't yet heard it.

  2. @Glenn: I think that as Chancellor-speak goes the apology was pretty evident. I also think you put your finger right on the thing that's best about the Occupy movement, in all its still-sharpening glory.