Thousands of students, instructors and staff members emerged from varied corners of campus Wednesday afternoon to rally on Upper Sproul Plaza, the very venue that once showcased the Free Speech Movement. In stark contrast to more recent protests, student government officials stood shoulder-to-shoulder with these fellow demonstrators, and a member of the campus administration, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande, even made an appearance.
We applaud the progress advanced by Occupy Cal in amassing such wide support, and we commend student and administrative officials for their visible involvement.
However, this progress was largely overshadowed by the unwarrented violence used by police against nonviolent protesters. The scene that has come to characterize the day — and that has been played on YouTube and other websites hundreds of thousands of times — shows demonstrators locked arm-in-arm surrounding their encampment. Police officers then descend upon the protesters, ramming them with batons in an attempt to breach their line. We are dismayed to see such violence on our campus, especially against non-threatening demonstrators and especially given the fierce criticism the campus faced not too long ago for its handling of the November 2009 Wheeler Hall occupation where images of police clashing with student protesters also became iconic of the day.
The scene on Wednesday swept through the national media, attracting attention through social networks and even appearing in a bit on the Colbert Report. The police officers’ actions were condemned by faculty members on campus as well as the ASUC and the UC Student Association. We now add our voice to this chorus of those who oppose this unnecessary force. The violence that we saw was completely inappropriate, and we refuse to believe that this was the only method that could have been used to clear out the encampment. Though the campus certainly has the right to establish parameters for protests, we completely disapprove of the way officials chose to enforce these rules. These protesters were not armed, generally did not lash out at police and presented no imminent danger to the police or to the rest of the campus.
Adding insult to injury, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau released a campuswide email Thursday criticizing the protesters’ human chain as “not non-violent civil disobedience,” only to explain in a subsequent message on Monday that he had not actually watched sufficient footage of the events until Sunday. In his statement Monday, Birgeneau explained that he had been abroad during the protest and that the videos he saw “are very disturbing. The events of last Wednesday are unworthy of us as a university community.”
We would hope and expect that our campus leader, regardless of where he is globally, would be paying closer attention to what is happening on his own campus.
Birgeneau’s Monday message went on to say that “we cannot condone any excessive use of force against any members of our community.” Still, this does not excuse his previous characterization of the protesters’ actions as a form of violent protest. These protesters in fact were not violent and generally chose to stand their ground without retaliating toward police despite being prodded and pushed by batons. Furthermore, Birgeneau’s backtracking is alarming because it appears that he did not take into account the full coverage of the event or the protesters’ perspectives of the day in his first message. His premature words angered and hurt those involved and reflected poorly on our campus administration.
Additionally, he also said in Monday’s statement that the campus will grant amnesty from student conduct violations to those who were arrested and cited for only trying to block police from the camp. This is a step in the right direction, but it is not a way out for the administration and does not make up for the use of force that was authorized in the first place.
In order to truly move forward from this incident, the campus must not only proceed promptly and thoroughly with the two planned investigations of the day’s events, but officials must also demonstrate today that they have learned from their mistakes. We hope that these investigations will not be delayed like the analysis of the 2009 Wheeler Hall occupation — a report which took about five months to complete. We also hope that through their future actions, campus officials prove that Wednesday’s actions will not be forgotten.
We encourage protesters to be cognizant of the risk of arrest and to maintain their commitment to nonviolence in their planned demonstration today, despite what they experienced with police last week.
Hopefully the magnitude of the local and the nationwide scrutiny on the campus will place sufficient pressure on the administration to make wiser decisions in the future, especially in determining the difference between when there is an imminent threat that necessitates action and when it is best to wait before acting. This is not the first time that campus officials have handled a demonstration poorly, but we hope that this will be a lesson for administrators to strive to make it the last.