Violence Goes to College


Before the assassin’s bullet cut him down, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been preparing his sermon for Atlanta’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church. The sermon was called “Why America May Go to Hell.” The theme of the sermon was simple, that the failure to address the acute social crisis in the country had already begun to lead to dangerous violence. A protest in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, on behalf of striking sanitation workers led to mayhem. King escaped from what he had thought would be a non-violent march and remarked, “We live in a sick nation. Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here, and maybe we have to just give up and let violence take its course.”

Such a statement is unusual in King’s repertoire, which is mainly positive and hopeful. By 1968, the carefully wrought counter-revolution to the liberation movements would soon make its appearance. The most dramatic instances were the assassinations of the standard-bearers of liberalism (King in April, Robert F. Kennedy in June). Less dramatic would be the shooting of college students, busy fighting the remnants of segregation and refusing to go shoot at the Vietnamese. Little remembered now is the killing of students on February 8, 1968, when South Carolina’s highway patrol officers shot and killed Delano Middleton, Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond as they tried to protest a segregated bowling alley in Orangeburg. No longer was the violence to come from below. It was more likely to come from above, to be the violence of the counter-revolution.

Campus militancy reached its highest point perhaps by the spring of 1969, when about a third of most students participated in one way or another in the demonstrations. It was in this context that California’s Governor Ronald Reagan said of the students, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” On May 4, 1970, four lay dead in Ohio (Jeffery Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer – average age 19 years and 6 months). Reagan got his bloodbath.

No campus took the kind of step taken by Ohio State University after the first campus shooting on record in the United States. On October 31, 1893, a night watchman fired at a group of students, wounding one of them. The Trustees conferred and returned their verdict, “That while we in no way approve of the students resisting an officer and believe that the watchman tried to do his duty, yet the occurrence of last night satisfied us that he lacks the coolness of judgment needed in such a position and we therefore recommend that he be discharged and the conduct of the student be referred to the faculty where it properly belongs.” That night watchman was fired. The national guardsmen from Kent State faced a judge, who dismissed the case against them in 1974.

By the 1950s, colleges moved from the amateur night watchman to the professional campus safety officer. Some universities (such as the University of Oregon and California Institute of Technology) explicitly instructed their officers not to intervene in campus protests (in 1970, an assistant to the President at Oregon wrote that “the campus security police will not be involved in any way with campus disorders”). They were in the minority, and they too would change their policies soon after. Most schools were less circumspect. By the mid-1970s, campus security departments routinely hired retired police officers, and most campuses provided them with what were called “mass disorder techniques.” By 1972, a landmark study by the Bureau of Justice suggested that campus security officers have full arrest powers and be trained and equipped to deal effectively with campus disorders and crowd control.

Our protests against apartheid and against the dirty wars in Central America were met with professional campus police officers, who held us at bay with their insistence on permits and the provision of protest sites. When these were violated, they treated us as if we were those Harvard students in 1766 that conducted the first recorded student protest over the quality of butter served in the dining halls. During the “year of the shanty towns” (1985-86), most campuses had tent cities to protest U. S. investment in apartheid South Africa. We were tolerated. Most colleges would eventually divest their money (at Dartmouth, the shanty was burnt down by The Committee To Beautify the Green). Arrests had the quality of theatre. My first taste of the Roach Killer flavored pepper spray came courtesy of the LAPD in a protest on behalf of Salvadorian refugees sometime in 1987. The campus police would never have deigned.

As colleges in urban areas found themselves as an island of prosperity in a sea of economic turbulence, the campus police officers were forced into a new role. They had to protect the students from the casual violence of the neighboring poor (not the routine sexual violence that is mostly student-on-student). The debate over arming the police officers was not around them turning the guns on the student-consumers, but on the local stickup man. This is what the anthropologist Michael Taussig called “terror as usual, the middle-class way, justified by the appeal to higher education, to the preservation of Civilization itself, played out right there in the fear-ridden blocks of lofty spires, the fiery figures of the burning buildings, and the calm spotlights of policemen with their watchful dogs.” It is what evoked for Taussig Walter Benjamin’s formula, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Taussig was thinking of the University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work at that time, and where the police force is the second largest in Illinois (second only to Metropolitan Chicago). When King was killed, the National Guard brought its heavy machinery into the Midway, to protect the UofC from the Southside. Now, the campus police is equal to the task.

King’s prophetic warning lay in suspension. By the 1990s, national priorities were such that what state money could be disbursed went more willingly to build up police forces and prisons than educational institutions. Neo-liberal logic dictates that state spending for repression is acceptable, but state spending for the social good is treasonous. California’s budget sets aside eleven percent toward prisons, but only seven and a half percent to higher education. In the current budget, the state spends $10 billion on prisons, twice what it spends on the University of California and California State University systems. In the mid-1990s, the state’s priorities were exactly reversed. Within the university system as well, more and more money went toward its forces of repression: the police officers are well trained and well equipped, and a growing force.

As the Occupy movement moves on campus, the full nature of this reconfigured police force is now on display. I recommend the video of the UC Berkeley police in action on November 10. No longer the campus safety officer called in to open your dorm room; these are riot police, fully ready to break a few heads. Or, as in the case of Professor Celeste Langan, to grab you by the hair as you nonviolently offer yourself for arrest, and pull you across the grass. I also recommend the November 18 video of a UC Davis officer go before a line of nonviolent protesters (all sitting on the ground), victoriously raise a red pepper spray canister in the air and then release the noxious orange gas into the students’ faces with not a moments hesitation. If this had occurred at Teheran University or at Beijing University, the U. S. State Department would have released a sanctimonious protest note about human rights violations and the right to dissent.

Assistant Professor Nathan Brown of the English Department at Davis wrote a clear-sighted and brave letter to the Chancellor asking for her resignation. He detailed not only the behavior of the campus police officers at Berkeley and at Davis, but also the responsibility of the campus leadership that sent the police to act in such a manner against nonviolent demonstrations in the first place. “The fact is,” Brown wrote, “the administration of UC campuses systematically uses police brutality to terrorize students and faculty, to crush political dissent on our campuses, and to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly. Many people know this. Many more people are learning it very quickly.”

The UC Davis Chancellor is “saddened” by the events, and an investigation is ongoing. It will uncover nothing. A police officer or two will be suspended. The slide of the university into the morass of student debt and the security state will be unabated.

The priorities of the campus are clear. An Assistant Professor earns an annual salary in the low $60,000 range; a Lieutenant in the campus safety department (the man who fired the pepper gas, for instance) brings home $110,000. Not to begrudge any public worker their salary (neither of these are in the league of the 1%). What startles is the divergence, and the system that honors this gap.

We live in a sick nation.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

Prashad will be speaking at the Free Mumia Now event in Philadelphia on December 9.


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