Friday, November 11, 2011

Dear Chancellor Birgeneau

A message which I e-mailed to UC Berkeley's Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau upon receipt of his message to the campus community, which chastised demonstrators (some of whom were beaten by police on Wednesday) and defended the use of violence against peaceful protest.


Dear Chancellor Birgeneau,

I am a Berkeley PhD student in the history department, off-campus this semester for my research.  But I was almost physically sickened to read newspaper accounts and see video footage of UCPD once again attacking student demonstrators on campus.  These students are citizens in an open society, and attend a public university, the administrators of which—one would have hoped—could be reasonably expected to defend their physical safety.

Thus the shock of seeing people who might very well be colleagues, friends and former students attacked by baton-wielding police was compounded by receiving an e-mail in which you and other campus administrators had the temerity to blame students for the violence that police used against them.  I think that it is less “unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain” than it was that the police decided that violence was the only route open to them.

I cannot see how the peaceful occupation of a square or even a building poses such a threat to campus safety that it ever justifies violence.  And your assumption that the presence of tents will automatically lead to “conflict issues that emerge when an encampment takes hold and the more intransigent individuals gain control” is a hypothetical.  The sanctioning of violence based on a hypothetical or even the caricatured outcomes at other Occupy demonstrations is shameful.

But what actually transpired was no less troubling.  Your attempt to transform the stationary linking of arms into an act of violence that merited a baton charge makes you and your colleagues look very small, manipulative and cynical indeed, as does your injunction that demonstrators use the “time tested ways to have [their] voices heard”.  Presumably you are referring to the earlier efforts to highlight the plight of public higher education in California and to pressure campus leadership to take something like robust action to counter public disinvestment from the University of California—all of which have been unsuccessful. 

Further, I do not think that the prerogative to define acceptable civil disobedience rests with Berkeley’s administration or with UCPD.  To someone who studies historical change, that seems to be a peculiar reading of how social change occurs.  Having touted your commendable participation in the civil rights movement during an earlier era in campus publications, you know better, and should be ashamed of yourself for pretending otherwise.

I am not convinced that occupying Sproul Plaza is the best method of defending public higher education, nor do I think that it sends an incisive message to the wider public, but for the moment, that has ceased to be the issue.  The issue is now, as I see it, the totally unjustifiable and disturbing use of violence by UCPD against people who posed no threat to the campus community. 

In years past I’ve heard students express interest in participating in campus demonstrations against fee hikes, but indicate that they are wary of doing so because of what has become UCPD’s serial use of violence and abuse of its authority—all of which appear to be condoned by a campus leadership which to all appearances does not take seriously its duty to provide for the physical safety of its students. 

The campus community deserves another message from you and your colleagues—in which you apologise for your caricature of Wednesday’s events and indicate that you will take speedy action to ensure that peaceful students at this public university in California will not be subjected to violence.


Jeff Schauer


  1. I don't know whether it's worse that riot police are the default response with the Blue Meanies leading the charge, or that I've come to expect this from UC over the tiniest little things.

    What's that? Someone in Vancouver upset about seeing the beatings of tiny women trying to flea the batons? Well, at least they haven't brought out the rubber bullets yet...

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  3. Well said, Jeff.
    The University administration's pretense that violence was an acceptable alternative is outrageous. And after months of being outraged at UC administration, I thought I was exhausted. But learned last week they can still make me angry.