Monday, November 14, 2011

Berkeley's Worthy Strike

It is difficult, especially from a distance, to understand why last week’s violent attack on peaceful student demonstrators by the police force at the University of California, Berkeley seems to have infuriated a wider section of the campus community than earlier instances of police violence.  But I’ve noticed the signatures of parents, of graduate students from the sciences, and other segments of the community who are usually underrepresented when it comes to campus politics, cropping up on the petitions I’ve signed in the past several days.

And what I’m hearing from people on campus is that the mood is different...more universally upset, and more determined than before.  And while I’m keeping a file of the ridiculously idiotic e-mails I’ve received from Chancellor Robert Birgeneau over the last few years, he outdid himself on this occasion, and perhaps it was his obscene defence of UCPD’s baton charges into students who were doing no harm, and his pathetic attempt to portray those students as the perpetrators of violence, which has brought out the grim reality of the situation for all to see.

Because for many or most of us at Berkeley, the campus is our home.  This is my eighth year as a University of California student—essentially one-third of my life—and the system as a whole and Berkeley in particular have provided me with endless opportunities and memories.  And if we can’t feel safe in our home, something is dreadfully wrong, and needs to change.  Birgeneau’s resignation should now be a matter of course, and his inability or unwillingness to protect students and faculty on the campus indicates that we need serious reform of UC’s governing structure.

That our governing body—the UC Board of Regents—constitutes a patronage machine for our corrupt political system is another indication of the flaws in UC’s institutional form.  Those of us who call this extraordinary university home, and who have been the beneficiaries of its high-minded idealism, are left with no other recourse than protest given the democratic deficit we face.

Not long ago, I would have described the protests on campus as commendable but misguided, and argued that the target should be the individuals and structures in Sacramento that make our state a laughingstock around the world.  But that response looks inadequate when neither a Chancellor who defends police violence against his students, nor a Board of Regents that is utterly unrepresentative of our values, of our institution, and of the state which that institution serves, is capable of defending the University of California against the state’s ill-judged disinvestment or the assault by a state Republican Party that might be charitably described as unhinged. 

The underlying problem remains the tyranny of minority rule in Sacramento, but we first need to make it clear to our current campus leadership that their outlook on and approach to our university’s crisis, and their disregard for the safety of our students makes them a part of the problem rather than the solution.  We need to make clear that we require a different kind of leadership, and that their open endorsement of inequality and violence will not do.  There’s a cuckoo in our campus nest, and while Birgeneau’s doddering ‘aw shucks’ routine in the face of the dismantling of our public universities was once merely aggravating, it now looks sickening and dangerous in light of the appalling violence which it excuses.

So I’m hoping that when I wake up on Wednesday, it will be to read about how a campus community put aside its differences and spoke with one voice against arbitrary police violence, against the dismantling of the most ambitious public university system the world has seen, and against those who do not see education as the greatest vehicle for social transformation in our state.  Those same voices should speak in favour of the democratisation of our institutions, for the principles of equality, and about the moral power of a community that values the security, well-being and contributions of all its members.

I will be striking in spirit from 5,000 miles away.  I will also be telling everyone I see tomorrow how proud I am to be associated with an institution like Berkeley, with the community for which it is a home, and with the values it represents.  I’ll tell them that Berkeley will be leading the charge to restore fairness, equality of access to public institutions, and democracy in California.  I hope I’m not wrong. 

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