Cops Beating UC Berkeley Students. In Video. Time to Judge The Quick and The Dead.
November 22, 2009 3 Comments
I’m watching footage of the events of the UC Berkeley strike, which culminated in a student takeover of Wheeler Hall where I teach.
I don’t pretend to be 100% sympathetic to the students who took over Wheeler Hall. Movements are unruly, and things can take turns that don’t seem consistent with the idealism of the day. They are young. They are frustrated. I have a lot of questions that weren’t adequately answered.
But neither the students inside nor those standing outside in the rain were criminals or spoiled brats. Let me be clear: these were not, for the most part, impassioned radicals. They were (for example) small Asian girls. They were 19-year olds in colored rain boots who couldn’t believe that their campus had been taken over by police in riot gear holding billy clubs. They were students who wanted to stand outside a building on their campus and watch because the administration gave them something to watch.
The administration escalated something small, something internal to the university, into a police action.
The claim is that all this was done on behalf of the students, 3800 of whom were prevented from having class in the course of the day because of the occupation. If this is all really about the students’ welfare, here’s a thought experiment. You’re a student. Which will disturb you more: not being able to go to a scheduled class or watching your campus be invaded by police who proceed to push, prod, hit and even at one point gas you or your friends?
These kids had no choice but to watch because—and this is the point that gets lost in all these discussions of what happened and why—while it may be inconvenient, disruptive and just plain silly to have a group of unarmed students put bike locks on the doors of a building where you normally have class, it is quite another thing to have your building surrounded by police who are brandishing billy clubs at you.
The new President of UC, Mark Yudof, famously said in an interview with the New York Times some time ago that “being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.”
I don’t know how much listening one really has to do in a cemetery. Leaving aside what it means to liken the university community you’ve promised to serve to corpses, in practice, Yudof seems more unwilling than unable to hear. He declared “emergency powers” and has overruled most of the governing bodies within the university, including the Faculty Senate. He’s the opposite the kid from The Sixth Sense. That kid sees dead people as if they were alive; Yudof seems to see (or rather hear) live people as if they were dead.
As for listening to the community: the university administration called the Berkeley and Oakland Police without attempting to speak with the students inside. It wasn’t that no one was listening, Mr. Yudof. You made no attempt to talk. In a cemetery, a monologue might be appropriate. You do not have that luxury.*
The police were attired in riot gear. Understand that this is threatening. Understand that they were pointing guns at your students, students who had not taken over a building, students who were standing outside in the rain watching something disturbing happen on their campus.
How many of those students, many of whom were just curious spectators, do you think you disillusioned and electrified into action?
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau sent an e-mail to the university community entitled “Wheeler Hall Protest Ended Peacefully.” He narrates the events thusly:
Throughout the day, the large crowds that gathered around Wheeler Hall necessitated significant police presence to maintain safety. It is truly regrettable, however, that a few members of our campus community may have found themselves in conflict with law enforcement officers.
A correction is in order: the large crowds did not “necessitate significant police presence.” The police were called immediately, in the morning, as soon as the 5o (or so) students took over Wheeler Hall. The police were not Plan B, they were not called in response to gathering crowds. They were the administration’s very first recourse. And it was BECAUSE THE POLICE WERE CALLED THAT THE CROWDS FORMED.
Let that be clearly understood.
The students outside were well-behaved. See photos in my previous post. These weren’t crazed activists; they were calm, puzzled, and eventually alarmed and pretty horrified students who stood in the rain as their university turned against them in riot gear.
Two faculty members in my department (the department whose home is Wheeler Hall) offered to be liaisons between the police, the administration and the students inside. Those offers were refused.
There are beatings in this story, and there are rubber bullets and tear gas in this story. None of this is okay. But I’m somewhat sympathetic to the police who, once they were called in, had to figure out how to deal with the enormous crowd of onlookers their presence generated. There is a reason the police and the university are different organizations. Once something becomes a police action, all bets are off.
And it’s the administration that exposed its most vulnerable members to city police. The fact is—and I hope they take this as a lesson, because while the events of 11/20 were bad, they could have been much, much worse—they shouldn’t have called the cops. Certainly not as a first response. They could have contacted student government. They could have contacted the unions. They could have contacted the faculty. They could have asked the faculty and staff who actually work in that building to intervene (which they offered to do).
They should have tried a few other things before unleashing the criminal justice system on their own students (or corpses, or customers).
Instead, they called the cops, who arrested and/or charged students and faculty both.
Those aren’t zombies they’re arresting, Mr. Yudof. That’s your university. Right there. And its … it’s ALIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This video is disturbing: start at 1:30 or so if you’re in a rush. Watch at least through 3:45. The whole thing is well worth watching:
One of my students is actually in this video; he’s pretty heartbroken by what’s happened:
In this video a girl loses her footing and falls under the yellow police tape. here’s what happens. That’s a gun being pointed at students, even though it contained rubber bullets.
Here’s the arrest of Professor Robert Dudley, in the Department of Integrative Biology at UCB:
*To be clear, I’m referring to the opening maneuvers on both sides, not to what happened later in the day. Both Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and the Twitterfeed from inside Wheeler Hall mentioned some negotiations that started up much later (once it became clear that the standoff wouldn’t resolve quickly). It’s unfortunate that it took a fairly successful occupation of a campus building for undergraduates to make their views heard by the Provost and the Chancellor.