Thursday, March 3, 2011

Berkeley protests...but to what effect?

The e-mail arrived in my inbox at 4.08 pm.  “The campus is dealing with a health and safety issue in Wheeler Hall and the building is closed.  All classes and events scheduled in Wheeler Hall for this afternoon/evening are cancelled until further notice”. 

Now I’ve got used to some pretty surreal e-mail messages from UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau over the years, but this one probably takes the cake.  A “health and safety issue”?  Were we talking flooding?  An outbreak of plague?  Rodent infestation? 

No, it was another protest (on the balcony of Wheeler Hall) against the meteoric rise of fees and tuition at the University of California, particularly over the past few years.  Compounded by California’s deficit (itself the result of a set of political decisions rather than the absence of wealth that it has become Republican reflex to blame), an apathetic student body and public, a recalcitrant administration, and a general disdain for the idea of public good, the university is struggling to retain its public character.

The daunting prospect of paying out over $25,000 per year to live in Berkeley as a UC student will, irrespective of financial aid, turn away many first-in-their-family college attendees.  Departments have been cut, lecturers sacked, staff members lost and library hours restricted.  UC administration has launched a set of reviews which have promised a leaner, meaner university, shorn of ideals and of any commitment to being public in anything other than name.  Suggestions for putting UC finances in order have included closing campuses, having smaller campuses only offer a limited selection of degrees, re-orienting the university away from California, taking more out-of-state students, and relying on on-line coursework.

All of these things compromise the University of California’s public character, its commitment to diversity, to promoting equality, to service to our state.  Any combination of such measures would lead to the deterioration of the quality of education that UC provides.  The actions that have already been taken, because the state has failed to live up to its duty to provide public education to those of its citizens who are qualified at an affordable cost, and those which are being considered, should indeed spark protest, and have done so on numerous occasions over the past two years at Berkeley.

The response to the occupation of the Wheeler balcony is just what we’ve come to expect from UCPD and the campus administration.  First there is the massive escalation of the police presence, so that by the time I returned to Wheeler in the evening, there were upwards of 30 police, in riot gear, assembled around the south entrance of the building.  Other columns of police could be seen moving around inside the building.  Quite an impressive force assembled to deal with eight people on a balcony.

Sometime after five o’clock in the evening, some pinhead from UCPD told the crowd that had gathered on the steps below Wheeler that they were unlawfully assembled.  What the particular grounds for this designation of a crowd are, I don’t know.  But it is outrageous that people should be told when and where they are able to exercise their democratic rights.  It is patently absurd that people should have to ask permission from the police, ostensibly public servants, to gather in a public location, outdoors, on a university campus, to make their political grievances heard. 
 
UCPD is not only systematically violence-prone in its approach to protests, but has, in each and every instance of student protest at Berkeley over the past two years, structured its response in such a way that it is actively taking sides in a political debate.  That is not the job of the police, but it is how they have chosen to interpret their mandate.  UCPD has, again and again during campus protests, made a conscious choice to shirk their duty—public safety—in favour of restricting students’ rights of protest.

A statement from UCPD's website demonstrates typical obtuseness: “Rights of protest and demonstration are both protected and governed by rules of appropriate time place and manner”.  There is clearly a fundamental, and probably deliberate, misunderstanding of what protest is about.  There is precious little point in protesting on the terms set by the institutions or individuals one is protesting against.  Imagine if civil rights campaigners, suffragettes, anti-apartheid activists, anti-poor law protestors, poll-tax objectors, and the anti-war movement had restricted their protests to the time, place and manner favoured by the institutions, powerbrokers, individuals or regimes they were protesting against.  Theirs would have been futile campaigns one and all.
UCPD has opted to foreclose the only means of protest open to students, who are engaged in an unequal power struggle with a cynical administration.  This is an unfortunate decision, and one which deserves investigation and re-thinking.

The administration summoned, among others, the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, to dialogue with protestors.  Now questioning the sanity might seem applicable in some respects when rationalising the presence of protestors.  After all, Einstein supposedly said that insanity involves doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  And the leaders of Berkeley’s protests can hardly be accused of creativity in their tactics (on which more below).

But the move by the administration smacks of contempt and disingenuity.  Treating people who are engaged in legitimate protest, over a matter with serious economic and social implications, as though their actions are aberrant and erratic—deserving of counselling!—is the height of dishonesty.  Yet it serves the purposes of the police and the administration well, for it is in their interest to discredit protestors.

Some will undoubtedly see some conspiracy, a deliberate aligning of interests, on the part of The System, to choke off burgeoning protests through knuckleheaded administrative responses and heavy-handed police tactics.  But that gives far too much credit to Birgeneau and other Berkeley administrators (the Regents, a politically-savvy and connected group of people might be another story altogether—there we see a certain aligning of corporate, economic and social interest).  I look at Birgeneau and his colleagues, however, and see a group of fairly incompetent administrators, hopelessly out of their depth, who couldn’t manoeuvre their way out of the proverbial paper bag, let alone a multi-million dollar deficit. 

The other benighted party in this drama are the protestors themselves.  From the beginning, there have been a group of protest leaders who have first and foremost fancied themselves militant radicals, and who have infused the movement with both a revolutionary zeal and an intolerance for any who deviate from revolutionary dogma.  Intentionally or not, they have cultivated the impression that they are comfortable with their struggle being a futile one.  They have indulged in a “them and us” rhetoric, and thereby alienated anyone prone to critical thinking or amenable to divergent political persuasions.

There are many students on campus who would be sympathetic to protestor’s goals, who are affected by the shambles that are UC’s budget and California’s politics.  But the exclusionary, divisive rhetoric of protest leaders has ensured that their following remains small (and that they remain in control of events).  They have shown a real unwillingness to do any serious thinking about how to mobilise the student body and the state community, or to strategise meaningfully about what the best long-term course of action might be.

They have contented themselves with repeating tired methods, utilising tried-and-failed rhetoric, and re-inventing the wheel on a semesterly basis, without ever attaching it to the cart that is the larger campus community.  They were closest to doing so in the fall of 2009, but the failure of an easy solution to materialise left many dispirited, and the movement without contingency plans. 

It is tragic that the slow erosion of the world’s pre-eminent public university system is going un-acknowledged, except for the passionate, worthy and heartfelt protests of a small group of students, whose valiant efforts are marred by their failure to develop a language that California’s public needs desperately to hear.  The campus and the state, in the context of the threat to public institutions across the whole country, must begin to link up diverse efforts to defend those institutions, and to create a coherent and compelling narrative about their value.  They must do so in the face of apathy on the part of the public, obstructionism on the part of administrators and police, cowardice on the part of elected officials, and a full-throated assault by the Republican Party machine and its corporate paymasters. 

This convergence of interests must occur soon, because time is not on our side.  The mantra of cuts, taken up even by Democrats like Jerry Brown, will take hold of the public’s mind when repeated ad nauseum.  It must be countered by a serious conversation about the idea of public good, the importance of social welfare, and the necessity of strong, public institutions to achieve any measure of equality, and to restore the sense of community that we are in danger of losing irretrievably.  

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Coda.  My evening is ending with another e-mail from Birgeneau, 10.19: "Wheeler Hall will be open as usual for normal activities tomorrow, Friday, March 4th".  Well, good to know that's sorted.

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