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“Out-gunned”: campus response to protest

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SEPTEMBER 16, 2011

The 2011 UC Berkeley Deans and Chairs Retreat, held on Aug. 18, featured a presentation by the administration on the topic of campus activism — what the past few years have taught and what the recent tuition hike and other policy and administrative changes might augur for this academic year. This is a topic of considerable importance given recent decisions made by the state legislature, the UC Regents and on our campus that are strongly affecting the lives of students, workers, staff and faculty. This year, some may choose individually and collectively to protest these decisions and to do so on the Berkeley campus in various ways.

I was not at the Deans and Chairs retreat, but in conversation with Barrie Thorne and Peter Glazer, who were present, I learned that a member of Chancellor Birgeneau’s cabinet, recalling the occupation of Wheeler Hall on Nov. 20, 2009 and other student actions, said that the administration had been “out-gunned” by students in terms of wireless technology and social media. This speaker’s choice of phrase is, at best, a regrettable metaphor.

Let us remember who was “out-gunned” in 2009, for it raises questions regarding how the administration and UCPD might respond to future protest events on campus. This is not to dwell upon the events of Nov. 20, but to take responsible measure of them and to act upon what we’ve learned.

On Nov. 20, the administration’s decision to militarize the protest space and campus — escalated through its mutual aid call to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office — threatened overwhelmingly nonviolent protesters, concerned onlookers and passersby with an aggressive display of firearms by law enforcement, including FN 303s, which closely resemble machine guns, 37 mm launchers used for deploying tear gas and smoke and side arms. Students and others outside Wheeler came with anger, confusion, curiosity, dismay and fear, and the sight of such weaponry escalated tension and worry.

Let’s be clear: This was not merely display. One student, allegedly pushing against a barricade, was shot in the stomach with a rubber projectile. Others, some defenseless, were severely injured by the use of police batons.

The violence by law enforcement on Nov. 20 was well documented and widely condemned (see, for instance, the Nov. 22, 2009 “Open Letter from Concerned Members of the Faculty to Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau”). It was also addressed in detail by the report issued on June 14, 2010 by the Police Review Board, then chaired by Law School Professor Wayne Brazil (Chancellor Birgeneau’s response to the report can be found here).

The PRB report, which the Chancellor correctly requested, is sobering. It documents startling and multiple failures of communication by the administration and UCPD in the face of the Wheeler occupation as it began in the early morning, and throughout the negotiations, standoff and protest that continued until evening. The report’s authors are unambiguous in their concerns regarding the administration and UCPD’s inadequate procedures for responding to acts of civil disobedience. The June 14 report is also hopeful. It offers specific, common sense and sometimes far-reaching recommendations to the administration regarding how it should change its protocols of response to protest.

Now, more than one year since the  report was issued, when public higher education is facing even greater threats, the campus community is unable to judge whether or not, or how, the administration has responded to or implemented the PRB’s recommendations. The PRB acknowledges that by the time its report was issued some recommendations had already been implemented. But the administration is long overdue in providing the campus thorough explanation of the changes it has made to its procedures for communicating with the multiple constituencies of the campus community during protest events, its oversight over law enforcement and mutual aid and its position regarding the protection of free speech and assembly on campus.

The campus community has a right and a need to know what measures its leadership and law enforcement will now take in the face of possible protest, civil disobedience and even building occupation. The campus community likewise has a responsibility to understand these measures as well as the consequences of legal civil disobedience and what actions are not protected under the law. Recognition of these rights and responsibilities is imperative if we are, in such uncertain times, to take the long view of future possibilities for Berkeley and public higher education, as Professor Catherine Cole urged in her Aug 26, 2011 op-ed in The Daily Californian.

As I see it, there is no justification for violent protest on the Berkeley campus or for violent crackdown on peaceful protest. Militarization of the campus as a response to civil disobedience cannot be tolerated. Moreover, the use of metaphors such as out-gunning, battlegrounds and the like is conspicuously inappropriate for a university community.

According to several people who attended the recent Deans and Chairs Retreat, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer indicated that an announcement regarding the PRB report would be forthcoming from the administration in two months time. This is a good sign, but it comes more than a year after the report was delivered. This seems unreasonably delayed, and I cannot help but think of the zeal and rapidity with which the administration has made other major restructuring changes to the Berkeley campus, most notably in the case of Operational Excellence. I may not be alone in hoping that the administration sees the correction of dysfunctional and potentially dangerous procedures related to its response to campus protest as having as much importance as achieving managerial efficiency and cost-saving. Arguably, the implementation of the PRB’s recommendations should have priority, for reasons that pertain to the safety of the campus community and to this campus’s historic responsibility to observe and foster the rights of free speech and assembly.

Gregory Levine is an associate professor in the Department of History of Art at UC Berkeley.

SEPTEMBER 15, 2011