The word ‘clash’ is often deployed in media coverage of protests that result in violence. Thus, the Thursday headline of U.C. Berkeley’s Daily Californian read: ‘Protesters, Police Violently Clash.’ The San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage at least specified the subject of the verb: “authorities twice clashed with protesters.” However, the word is still entirely inappropriate for describing the events that took place Wednesday on the U.C. Berkeley campus. It implies an ambiguity about the directionality of violence that was entirely lacking in the day’s events. The truth, which has been partially captured on video, is that with the authorization of U.C. Berkeley administrators, riot police brutally beat entirely non-violent student protesters.
To set the stage, hundreds of students had come out to Sproul Plaza—where the Free Speech Movement began—to protest proposed fee hikes of 81 per cent that would bring U.C. tuition from $13,000 to over $22,000. The argument of the students was simple: the banks caused the financial crisis, the financial crisis caused the budget crisis, and therefore the banks, not students, should pay for it. Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of students by raising tuition and making public education inaccessible to working and middle-class students, the state should tax the banks, corporations and the top 1 per cent of income-earners to refund public education.
At class discussions and ‘teachouts’ held all week, students shared stories of the hardships already caused to their families by the fee increases that have raised UC tuition almost 100 per cent since 2008, and their concerns that if this new round of fee hikes went through, they would no longer be able to attend Cal, or would be plunged more deeply into debt. Ironically, they would be forced to take more loans from the very banks that caused the financial and budget crises that led to the fee hikes.
This brought hundreds of students, many of whom had never been in a protest before, out to Sproul Plaza on Wednesday. The students drew inspiration from the Occupy Movement and set up their own small encampment on the lawn outside of Sproul Hall. But ironically, whereas almost every major American city—including many with notoriously brutal police departments—has allowed Occupy encampments to stand, the administrators of U.C. Berkeley perceived a few tents as a sufficiently grave threat to public order that it warranted a brutal police assault on its own students.
While the afternoon’s violence was partly recorded, let me describe what happened in the relative darkness around 9:30 pm. The students vowed to non-violently defend their encampment and at least 300-400 students locked arms around it. These were bright, idealistic young students from every kind of background imaginable who had worked hard to gain their spot at U.C. Berkeley. They bravely stood there as a phalanx of police in riot gear turned the corner of Sproul Hall and rapidly charged towards them, thrusting their batons with violent force into the crowd. Chanting ‘non-violent protest’ and ‘stop beating students,’ student after student took fierce baton thrusts to their chests and limbs.
Then the police started swinging, brutally beating people’s chests, arms, knees, and backs. They were swinging to hurt. With the crowd behind and the police in front there was no way for people to leave even if they wanted to. A few people tried to escape in the narrow gap between the students and police. They were savagely beaten. Several people fell to the ground from police blows; they were mercilessly and repeatedly hit with batons as they lay defenseless on the ground, putting up no resistance whatsoever. The police arbitrarily pulled people from the crowd, arresting 32. Throughout what can only be described as a terrifying physical attack that has left many with serious injuries, the students stayed entirely non-violent.
In an email to the campus on Thursday, Chancellor Birgenou defended the administration’s response by saying that it was necessary to remove the encampment for ‘practical’ considerations of ‘hygiene, safety, space and conflict issues’ that would arise from it. He further sought to delegitimize the protesters by claiming that their actions did not deserve the name of non-violent civil disobedience. He wrote, “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.”
It seems improbable that a Chancellor who takes pride in his participation in the Freedom Rides could have forgotten that linking arms and peacefully refusing to move is exactly what non-violent civil disobedience has always consisted of, whether in Selma or the lunch-counters of the American South, South Africa or India. Where would any of these movements (that we now so easily admire) have ever gotten if they had said, ‘Ok, we won’t stand on your bridge, sit in your restaurant or take our salt from the sea?’ What Birgeneau is really saying then is that we are free to protest to so long as we obey his orders. This is more aptly called non-violent civil obedience. In trying to strip the students of their non-violence, Birgeneau constructs a classic reversal: holding hands is violence, and brutally beating students is necessary for protecting their safety.
While administrators like Birgeneau voice sympathy for the causes of the Occupy movement, profess to take pride in the campus’ long history of activism, and espouse a liberal nostalgia for the causes of their generation—the civil rights, anti-war, and anti-apartheid movements—their actions show that they are willing to play the role of those who have always suppressed such movements for social justice: responding to non-violent courage with a police club.
What Wednesday’s events conclusively demonstrate is that Birgeneau and the UC Berkeley administration, not student protesters, are the greatest threat to campus safety. While many police offers displayed sadistic violence and should be fired and sued for police brutality, the responsibility lies at the top. In deciding to authorize U.C. and Alameda County police to inflict grievous bodily injury on its own students to enforce a minor clause of the campus code, UC administrators—including Chancellor Birgeneau, Executive Vice Chancellor George Breslauer, and Vice Chancellor for Student affairs Harry Le Grande—showed an astounding lack of judgment, intellect, courage, and human decency. They should be forced to resign immediately before they are able to hurt more students.
MICHAEL LEVIEN is a graduate student in Sociology at U.C. Berkeley.