Oh Berkeley, you fickle mistress! I thought that I had seen every side of you, my dear. We’ve endured so much together over the past three years — a social security scam, an endless array of protests, several building occupations and even a riot. By now, I figured that I’d be able to predict your every move, hence why I took up this column. But after this shocking semester, I’ve learned that the only thing I can predict about you, darling, is that you are eternally unpredictable.
Needless to say, this has been one hell of a fall. From “racist” Republicans to unwavering occupiers to an outbreak of the mumps that gave everyone the goosebumps, this semester has seen an eccentric cast of characters that is unusual even by Berkeley standards. And this autumn mayhem has not been confined to our campus either. The Nov. 18 image of an overweight UC Davis police officer pepper-spraying protesters with chilling casualness has haunted both the central valley campus and the nation at large. Coming only a week after our own campus’s baton-beating of Occupy Cal protesters, the two incidents have sparked a national conversation about the use of force in police operations.
While some overzealous free speech advocates may claim that the police’s actions in both instances amount to constitutional violations, jurisprudence clearly says otherwise. The First Amendment does not grant the right to camp wherever one wishes and certainly not the right to block cops from executing their orders. Any levelheaded lawyer will tell you that public institutions reserve the right to establish time, place and manner restrictions on free speech so long as they are content-neutral, narrowly tailored, serve a significant interest and leave open alternative channels for communication. Camping is one such reasonable restriction, and thus the police’s orders to take down tents at Occupy Cal and Davis are ipso facto legal.
Nevertheless, the level of force utilized in both orders’ execution is abhorrent. To think that we live in a society where brandishing guns, batons, pepper spray and riot gear is an acceptable answer to empty-handed students is downright disgusting. Sadly, what we saw at Berkeley and Davis over the past three weeks were not isolated incidents either, but rather are merely the newest marks on a continuing timeline of police militarization.
For the past half century, American police departments have become increasingly violent, as federal policies like the War on Drugs and War on Terror have militarized local municipalities. SWAT team raids have increased more than tenfold over the past three decades, from approximately 3,000 per year in the early 1980s and to a frightening 40,000 today, according to numbers in Radley Balko’s book, “Overkill.” Under the Reagan administration, Congress began making surplus military weaponry such as tanks, helicopters and body armor available for local police departments. But, don’t be too quick to pin police militarization entirely on Republicans. These policies saw no reversal under the Democratic Clinton administration the next decade, with 1.2 million pieces of military equipment having gone to local police departments in 1997 alone, and Obama shows no “hope” of easing up either.
Indeed, it is on issues like this that I am proud to be a libertarian. Whereas both sides of the aisle have been cheering on police militarization, it is only libertarians and principled leftists who have persistently stood in opposition. If only my fellow dissenters from the Occupy movement would realize that it’s the government and not “the 1 percent” that’s assaulting them in the form of batons and pepper spray, perhaps our two movements could join together and make some political progress. But, I digress.
How can we hit the breaks down this road to serfdom and reverse away from police militarization? Fortunately, the Berkeley and Davis incidents already provide an answer. Within minutes of each abuse, streaming video was uploaded online for millions to see the totalitarian taste of excessive force.
Thanks to the Internet’s ability for government accountability, both Chancellor Robert Birgeneau of Berkeley and Linda Katehi of Davis have publicly apologized, and two officers have been placed on administrative leave. Preventative measures are being taken as well, with UC President Mark Yudof launching an investigation into police protocol and the California state legislature holding hearings next month on the use of force during the Occupy protests.
With our passion for civil liberties in our hearts and cameras in our hands, we as concerned citizens can reverse the troubling trend towards police militarization. Maybe then can we make our beloved campus, that fickle mistress, a little less volatile.