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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 diary 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 marked contrast, below the jump 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:

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.

(Emphasis added.)

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 diary, 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 photos in the version of this diary posted to my blog, One Finger Typing). 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; if you haven't already, 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, Chancellor

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:

The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
What Bioneers said 7 years ago about Occupy Wall Street
Birth of a movement? (on One Finger Typing)

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm shocked, but I shouldn't be (4+ / 0-)

    For the chancellor of a major university to take such an about face is surprising, but the fact is that any normal, reasonable human being who watches that footage of the students being rammed and battered can only realize that it is disturbing and wrong.

    Problem is that so many of our leaders, even the left leaning ones (I'm looking at you, Oakland) seem to have lost their collective minds.  They are no longer normal or reasonable.

    I blog about my daughter with autism at her website

    by coquiero on Thu Nov 17, 2011 at 09:20:09 AM PST

  •  If they can call it violence (4+ / 0-)

    it is a short jump to the label of terrorist. Thats what they are aiming for. They are masters of taking small steps to acheive things we would never accept otherwise.

    It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich according to what he is not what he has -Henry Ward Beecher

    by PSWaterspirit on Thu Nov 17, 2011 at 09:26:04 AM PST

    •  iirc there have already been bills that (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dirtandiron, Johnny Q

      define non-violent protest as terrorism.  It's only a matter of time before one gets through and becomes law, imo -- especially as OWS gets stronger.

      Progressive Candidate Obama (now - Nov 6, 2012)
      Bipartisan Obama returns (Nov 7, 2012)

      by The Dead Man on Thu Nov 17, 2011 at 10:24:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think there's a difference between force and (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    By disobeying, an order to voluntarily submit to arrest, people essentially must expect some level of force to be used to accomplish the arrest.  If the police tell you to come to the squad car, and you sit and refuse to move, you can expect to be dragged off.  If you link arms, you can expect that the police will use the force necessary to force you into their custody.  They don't have to be "nice" about the force.  When a person refuses to obey police orders to submit to custody, the police are entitled to use force to accomplish that goal.  If you link arms and refuse to move from that, you should expect the police to use force on you to force you to drop arms.  And it doesn't have to be pretty, and it is likely to result in minor injuries -- cuts, scrapes, bruising, etc.  That's to be expected if you don't voluntarily submit and your actions require the police to use force. That's why when people engage in civil disobedience, they typically engage in the lowest, most passive level of resistance possible -- just sitting there, meaning the police drag them off.  When you do more than that, such as linking arms as a way of physical resistance, you have to expect the police to use more force.  

    On the other hand, I equate violence with, for example, random beatings as a reflection of perhaps police anger with the behavior of the person breaking the law.  I understand that police are human  and it is difficult to keep one's temper in the face of taunts or abuse (people spitting on you, maybe even throwing things at you), but violence is never an appropriate response.

    Simply put: use of force is justified if the person does not voluntarily submit to custody.  Use of violence is not.  

    •  Did you happen to read the first block quote? (8+ / 0-)

      "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."

      He volunteered to be arrested and was still thrown down by his hair. This is not a hypothetical.

      •  Thanks SpecialKinFlag... (5+ / 0-) took the words right out of my fingers.

        Professor Langan is a woman -- she not he -- but yes, right on the mark. Not a hypothetical.

      •  The diarist's specific behavior? (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I was stating a general principle above rather than commenting on this behavior, as I wasn't there.  

        I will say, however, that once you link arms, that is your statement that you are going to resist arrest.  It sounds to me link the diarist was part of the resisting arrest (linking arms), but then changed his mind.  Once a person evidences an intent to resist arrest, that's the authorization for the use of some measure of force.  Police don't have to give you a second chance after you've shown that you are resisting arrest.  If the diarist DID resist arrest (link arms when the police came to arrest them), then I would have expected the police to push him to the grounds and handcuff him behind his back. That's pretty much the standard way to handle people who resist arrest -- it forces them into the most helpless position possible.  That's about the least amount of force that is generally used for someone who is resisting arrest.  He would have gotten the same kinds of cuts, scrapes, and bruises if he would have been dragged away -- because the end of the dragging away is putting a person in that position and handcuffing them behind their back.    

        If the diarist was not part of the resisting arrest -- the arm linking -- the treatment was not justified.  However, once a group has resisted arrest -- linking arms -- police don't have to give each person a chance to change his mind.  You resist arrest, you will be pushed to the ground and handcuffed behind your back.  There's nothing outrageous about that.  As I said, that sometimes results in cuts, scrapes, bruises.

        Further beating, or further force, would have been totally unjustified, of course.  

    •  One point- B's 1st msg said linking arms was NOT (5+ / 0-)

      "non-violent civil disobedience", which, since it was indeed civil disobedience (what else was it??) clearly implies that linking arms was violent.

      In other words, Birgeneau was at first (and quite possibly as Steve says at the misdirection of some overpaid Vice Chancellor of which we have many) calling the protestors violent, when in fact they were not.

      Now whether you call the police response "violent" (as I do, look at the video and read the eyewitness reports) or merely "forceful" is another question, but the Chancellor was clearly, although with weasel wording, calling nonviolence violence. And he was sooooo wrong that he realized it and has walked that back, not once but twice. I actually applaud his last message, and I really hope he demotes the overpaid idiot who told him linking arms was "violence". Sheesh.

      •  I disagree with the Chancellor's statement (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        BlackSheep1, DollyMadison

        because I don't think that linking arms is "violent."  I do, however, think that linking arms is resisting arrest, and resisting arrest justifies force on the part of the police.  

        Perhaps the way to say it is, linking arms is resisting arrest, and police will use force when people resist arrest.  So, the linking arms caused the use of force.  I would agree with that.

        I do, however, think that merely resisting arrest (if one is also not attacking the police by, for example, throwing things at them) justifies only a low level of force. For people who resist arrest, that is typically dragging them away, pushing them to the ground and handcuffing them behind their backs.  If a person is resisting arrest, that level of force is going to generally be justified.  People who engage in civil disobedience have to EXPECT to be dragged away and put in a position where they can be handcuffed behind their backs.  They should NOT expect more than that -- no beatings or the kind of thing I called "violence."  

        •  I think this is a more reasonable statement (5+ / 0-)

          ...than those of a bit earlier, coffeetalk.

          The actions taken by the police were, in my view, grossly disproportionate to the circumstances before them.

          The Chancellor's later statements very strongly suggest that he thinks the same, on review and reflection.

          My point is that the increasing tendency for authorities to equate non-violent protest (disobedience) with "violence" is absurd. It is also dangerous, to democracy and to citizens.

  •  I am scared that we are losing our (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    right to protest the government, or (even worse) powerful corporations. What kind of country are we going to have when you cannot express disapproval of the government that makes the decisions that affect our lives?

    Where are all the jobs, Boehner?

    by Dirtandiron on Thu Nov 17, 2011 at 11:21:57 AM PST

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