Our campus is not a war zone

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Katie Lee/Staff

In person, Bob Birgeneau is an affable man — a textbook example of a gentle Canadian neighbor. Years ago, as MIT’s Dean of Science, he used to command universal adoration and respect. Sadly, today’s Chancellor Birgeneau appears largely divorced from the Dean Birgeneau that I once admired while a graduate student at MIT. I still believe in his basic goodness. But I’m befuddled by the inconsonance of his two personae.

I cannot but condemn the grotesque use of force by certain members of the UC Berkeley Police Department and the Alameda County riot squad against defenseless students, faculty, staff and other peaceful demonstrators on Nov. 9 — a day of shame that may forever taint Chancellor Birgeneau’s leadership tenure at Berkeley.

The officers’ fierce tactics mimicked those used by the agents of dictatorial, retrograde and violent regimes that crush peaceful dissent. And to deteriorate matters further, Chancellor Birgeneau’s “Message to the Campus Community” on the day after the tragedy amounted to little more than a lamentable defense of the indefensible.

It’s absurd to claim — as did the message from the Chancellor’s Office — that the linking of hands by demonstrators is “not non-violent.” Evidently, whoever penned those words on behalf of the Chancellor was not august enough to declare that the linking of hands is “violent.” Isn’t “violent” the same as “not non-violent”? Those choice words — “not non-violent” — point to an untenable attempt at cloaking the egregious misconduct by the police.

Before he addresses the “campus community,” the Chancellor must first treat our wonderful students, faculty and staff as bona fide members of the community — not as combatants or hooligan riffraff. As if the raw, unprovoked violence perpetrated by certain members of the police force were not enough, the administration’s attempt at blaming the victims is tantamount to a reckless assault against truth and decency — little short of outright verbal violence against the humanity of those who tumbled to the ground at the crushing blows of the police batons on that odious day.

On Nov. 14, the Chancellor issued a second communique, titled “Chancellor’s message regarding last week’s events on campus.” In it, he indicated that he had been on travel during the protests, and had “remained in intermittent contact” with the campus during that time. The Chancellor characterized the videos pertaining to the protests as “very disturbing.” He also offered a limited amnesty to the students who had been arrested.

The Chancellor’s second message is objectionable on multiple fronts.

First, if indeed he did not know all the facts, he should not have allowed his staff to broadcast an ill-thought-out message bearing his name to the Berkeley community on the day after the protests.

Second, it is the victims of the police brutality who have the moral prerogative to forgive. It is the Chancellor who should apologize to the victims, for he is the final authority on campus, and bears ultimate responsibility.

Third, the Chancellor’s “amnesty” is worthless to the unfortunate protesters who were assailed and arrested by the Alameda County Sheriff’s riot police. Those victims are at now at the mercy of Alameda County’s District Attorney, over whom the Chancellor has no authority.  Nevertheless, the Chancellor should ask the DA to drop the charges.

Fourth, the administration should not have invited non-UCPD officers to our campus in the first place. The Alameda County riot police do not have strong personal bonds with our community, because they do not interact with our students, faculty and staff on a daily basis.  Naturally, they are not privy to the adverse ramifications of the use of force on the general morale of a university environment.

Fifth, the Chancellor’s second message assumes that we have a short collective memory. The police violence of Nov. 9 is only the last in a series of such incidents in our recent history, stemming mostly from ill-conceived campus policies on protests, poor use of law enforcement and an endemic inflexibility to give space to, and negotiate with, those who have grievances.

And sixth, the Chancellor stated that during his “week-long trip to Seoul, Tokyo and Shanghai,” his team “successfully advanced some important new partnerships that will benefit our campus.” Although this is laudable, these partnerships are meaningless if the atmosphere back on campus is such that our students, faculty and staff live in fear for their own safety whenever they encounter a police officer whose job is to protect — not threaten — them.

Ultimatums about whether tents may be pitched on campus are misguided. Instructing officers to remove encampments only increases tension, alienates the officers from Berkeley’s civilian community, and eliminates the possibility of a peaceful settlement.

The trajectory looks like this. Officers are ordered to remove the tents. The demonstrators persist in their right to peaceful protest. The officers cannot return to their stations before executing their mission, so they clash with the demonstrators.

How is pitting officer against demonstrator, with no trained civilian intermediary on site to negotiate, smart policy?

Did the officers who exercised undue force do so under panic, because of poor training or by virtue of being in the throes of a power trip? This is an important question.  We must expect law enforcement officers to conduct themselves professionally. And we must hold them accountable in cases of misconduct. But we must not overlook the grander truth that the officers themselves are among the victims of an ill-conceived, misguided policy that situates them against defenseless demonstrators in a charged atmosphere.

In retrospect, does the Chancellor’s team ask whether the intransigent policy on encampments was worth the consequent physical injuries, the disturbed lives and livelihoods, the enormous expense (due to enforcement and ensuing law suits), the public ridicule of the administration by media commentators across the nation, the negative image projected of UC Berkeley and the depreciated morale on our otherwise amazing campus?

I’m outraged that the sacred precinct of our academic institution has been desecrated by unprovoked physical violence perpetrated against defenseless civilians, all to enforce an insupportable policy.

UC Berkeley is not a war zone. The Chancellor and the UC Regents must stop treating it as such. This madness must stop.

I call on Chancellor Birgeneau to reach out to the victims of police brutality, to demilitarize our campus, to revise the misguided policies that pit officer against civilian and to launch an investigation to determine the administrative command-and-control failures that have led — on more than one occasion in recent years — to the eruption of violence on our campus.  Failure to do so is bound to morph the audible suggestions that he resign into the shrill clarion call of an en masse, irreversible demand.

Babak Ayazifar is a faculty member in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.