November 25, 2011
campus protest; it's also our greatest public
university, and its faculty include some of the
country's most brilliant and accomplished people. So
when those faculty members meet to debate police
violence against the "Occupy" movement on their campus,
it's big news.
On Monday, the
resolution expressing "no confidence" in their
chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, because of police violence
The chancellor's defense of police conduct was
particularly outrageous: "It is unfortunate that some
protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking
arms," he declared the day after the police
confrontation. "This is not non-violent civil disobedience."
Linking arms is "not non-violent"? Former poet laureate
Robert Hass, who teaches at Berkeley, was one of the
demonstrators; he described what happened in an op-ed
for the New York Times:
riot gear, "using their clubs as battering rams, began
to hammer at the bodies of the line of students" who had
linked arms. The sheriffs "swung hard into their chests
and bellies.. If the students turned away, they pounded
their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they
hit them on their spines." Afterwards fellow poet
Geoffrey O'Brien had a broken rib. "Another colleague,
Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across
the grass by her hair."
A million people have seen the YouTube video of peaceful
demonstrators with linked arms being jabbed by cops with
batons. Many more saw the video on TV-Stephen Colbert
featured it on his show, commenting "Look at these
vicious students attacking these billy clubs with their
soft, jab-able bellies!"
In response to the chancellor's statement that linking
arms "is not non-violent," students covered the campus
with pictures of Martin Luther King linking arms with
other civil rights leaders at the 1963 March on
proposing a vote of "no confidence" in the chancellor.
But what exactly does "no confidence" mean? Some say
they will vote against the resolution because they don't
want to get rid of the chancellor, who, they say, has
been good at other tasks. But Wendy Brown, professor of
political science, one of the authors of the resolution,
says "we're not calling for his resignation. We're
trying to effect a dramatic change in policy."
Indeed, the resolution, co-authored by Judith Butler,
professor of rhetoric and comparative literature, and
Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and of gender and
women's studies, concludes that the faculty has lost
confidence in the ability of the chancellor "to respond
appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure
student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the
deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and
assembly on the
anything about calling for his resignation.
But the chancellor does have defenders, most notably
history professor David Hollinger, who wrote at a
university website that the police were enforcing a ban
on overnight camping on campus, which "has some
reasonable justifications" and "does not impede
political advocacy." Fighting with the police, and the
chancellor, over the tents is "an unfortunate diversion"
from the real issue, he argued-declining funding of
public education, and growing economic inequality in the
US at large.
This protest, Hollinger says, is not like the Free
Speech Movement of 1964, which challenged university
rules that did prevent political advocacy. Focusing the
chancellor "implies that the UC Berkeley itself is
integral to the economic inequality against which Occupy
Wall Street is directed," which "grossly underestimates
the role of UC Berkeley in advancing egalitarian goals."
Thus, Hollinger concludes, "It will not do to blame this
on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau."
It's true that fighting over the tents is a distraction
from the real issues. But who made the tents an issue?
It wasn't the kids-it was the chancellor. UC Berkeley
Police Capt. Margo Bennett told the LA Times that the
cops attacked and clubbed protesters because "the
administration said no tents."
The signs carried by the demonstrators at
didn't say anything about a right to sleep in tents. The
signs said, "Re-Fund Education" and "Education shouldn't
be a debt sentence" and "81% fee hikes = death of public
education" and, of course, "we are the 99%." I found
only one sign about the tents: "We are not camping. We
are assembling peaceably to petition the government for
a redress of grievances."
Even if the chancellor has a "reasonable justification"
for banning the tents, why not grant an exception in
this case? Let the tents stay, and then everybody can
focus on the real issues. University administrators
everywhere say they have to take down the tents because
of their concern for the "health and safety of
students." But of course being clubbed by the cops, or
pepper-sprayed, is a lot worse for your health than
sleeping in a tent.
I didn't find anyone among the faculty supporters of the
"no confidence" resolution who thought they were
fighting for the right to overnight camping on campus.
Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of art history,
was one of the authors of the first faculty petition
expressing "no confidence" in the chancellor-co-authored
by Gregory Levine, associate professor of history of
art, and Peter Glazer, associate professor of theater,
dance and performance studies. Bryan-Wilson says "of
course" the key issue is public funding for higher
education. "I hear people saying, Why are these
privileged kids complaining? That sickens my heart. The
students I teach are not privileged. They are
immigrants, first-generation college students,
struggling to make ends meet, under a tremendous student
debt burden. These students have worked so hard to get
here. It's heartbreaking to see what is happening to
them. After tuition jumped,
population went down 16 percent in one year. An 81
percent tuition increase over four years will completely
change the face of that population."
A different argument made by defenders of the chancellor
points to his apology on Tuesday. Just before
Thanksgiving break, the chancellor declared, "I
sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 at UC
suffered an injury during these protests. As chancellor,
I take full responsibility for these events and will do
my very best to ensure that this does not happen again."
That, his defenders say, should suffice; his critics
should declare "mission accomplished" and move on.
Paul Rabinow, professor of anthropology, and a supporter
of the "no confidence" resolution, disagrees. "No one in
his administration or the highly paid police has been
fired or really sanctioned," he says. "Nothing has
changed in the administration. This is like Wall Street-
protesters are arrested, but no one else.. Of course the
core problem is the lack of budget support from the
state. But strong leadership from the administration.not
press releases and e-mail letters-would be appreciated."
At the faculty meeting on Monday Wendy Brown expects
"significant opposition" to the no-confidence motion
from the sciences and the professional schools. It's
possible that some on the left may argue for a stronger
resolution, calling for the chancellor's resignation.
Students have made such a call, but I couldn't find any
faculty members planning to introduce that proposal.
On Wednesday, the last day of school before Thanksgiving
break, the Daily
proposals will be offered. One, to be presented by
Hollinger and history professor Tom Laqueur, is
"essentially a watered-down version" of the no-
confidence resolution. It condemns the police actions on
November 9, but instead of "no confidence" in the
chancellor, it expresses "greatly diminished"
Another proposal, authored by professor of electrical
engineering and computer sciences Brian Barsky and
professor of law Jonathan Simon, offers nine policies
that would regulate more strictly the police use of
force on protesters. It concludes that, "following any
incident in which forcible methods were used, the
Chancellor should convene a public meeting.to explain
the rationale of the decision to employ them."
Wendy Brown concluded, "We need the Senate meeting to
get at questions like chain of command-who ordered the
violent policing? And policy-why has violent policing
against nonviolent protests occurred three times in the
last two years? Why do investigations and reports of
each incident never add up to anything?. We've got a
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