Sunday, November 20, 2011

The University of California and the Police

Let me be clear at the outset.  I don’t hate the police.  I don’t refer to them as pigs.  I don’t yell in public.  I’m generally respectful of authority...probably reprehensibly so.  I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a ‘troublemaker’.  I don’t even like protests...they’re noisy, crowded, and I associate them with excessive cigarette smoke and sloganeering.  When I go to them, it’s out of an obligation to express solidarity, and certainly not from any enjoyment I get from the experience.  In short I’m the kind of person who, when something like an Occupy movement rolls around, would much rather be at home doing something really exciting like writing about the influence of US Fish and Game ecology on hippopotamus culls in Uganda.

But when I see UC Davis students being attacked by unprovoked, pepper spray-wielding campus police, or read accounts of UC Berkeley students being assaulted by baton-waving UCPD officers, and then read the responses from the campuses’ two chancellors (to the effect the students were asking for it, the police had no choice, that’s a risk you take when you exercise your civil liberties...), I experience a substantial loss of respect for law enforcement, and for authority in general. 

The police actions, which I would have a hard time describing as anything other than a kind of pointless and destructive savagery, are nothing new at UC Berkeley, where in 2009 students were beat and shot with rubber bullets.  Then as now, this violence elicits a particular anguish on my part due to the knowledge that I have students who were present at these protests and subject to such brutality.  These were students of whose achievements, ambitions and ethics I stood and stand in awe.  Students who I have come to know and respect very deeply and very genuinely, as brilliant and hard-working individuals.  Students who exhibit no sense of entitlement whatsoever and who are reluctant protesters one and all.  Students who, in other words, are nothing at all like the cruel caricatures painted in the media and in comments on newspaper columns.  Students who are our future, and for whom we should be caring and of whom we should be supporting in every way we can, not undermining and then assaulting.  No one, anywhere, least of all at an institution meant to foster idealism and citizenship, and a belief in human agency and decency, should have to witness and face such violence, particularly in the course of exercising basic civil liberties. 

The most probing and disturbing analysis of the brutality exercised by police forces across the country in reaction to the Occupy Movement has come from the man who guided the police response to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle (really, it is worth reading).  For someone who is looking into the militarisation of institutions as seemingly-innocuous as wildlife departments, it is chilling to read about the insular, amoral, socially-disconnected, and even corrupt ethos and culture that Norm Stamper sees as corroding police departments across the nation.  This already-dangerous ethos and culture, Stamper argues, was compounded by the government’s knee-jerk response to 9/11—demonstrating that the chickens associated with the policy steps we began taking on September 12, 2001 will be coming home to roost in great numbers, in unexpected and unpleasant places for many, many years to come.

The police and our political and administrative leadership will pay a price for this brutality and their tacit encouragement of it.  Because every time the police batter a peaceful demonstrator, they’re breaking more than ribs.  They’re breaking—and thereby voiding—a social contract.  The handing over of authority to a group of people to patrol our streets, armed, and to use violence at their discretion within the elastic remit of the law, is not something society does lightly.  The legitimacy of the ceding of that authority will cease the moment most people begin to realise that most of what the police are doing at Occupy protests has nothing to do with the safety of our community or the security of our campus, and everything to do with taking sides in a political dispute.

If I were on a UC campus today and was given an order by a police-officer in the context of a protest or demonstration, I realise that I would likely disobey it.  My inner conformist, which makes up the majority of my being, might reflexively respond in one way, but if I thought about it at all I would have to decide, based both on the violation of that social contract and on the chain of events we’ve seen unfold in the past weeks, that the orders given by the police in this context are in neither the interests of public safety nor of a moral cause; that they are motivated by neither concern for the welfare of the community nor by any respect for people’s civil rights.  This loss of respect is in nobody’s interest, but the ball is in the court of our authorities and institutions.  It is their responsibility to make this right. 

For those of you who read this blog regularly, I apologise for what must seem like a flurry of undoubtedly somewhat-redundant-sounding posts about police violence on California’s university campuses and the challenges to democracy and society which these pose.  But just when I think I’ve seen the University of California and campus administrations at their worst, and the police at their most violent, they go one step further.  And I believe, for the safety of students and community members on our campuses, for the health of our democracy, and for the strength and security of our public institutions, we need to defend ourselves against their actions and register our strong disapproval whenever and however we can, and as often as we are able.  And from 5,000 miles away, I have to satisfy myself with this.

Fiat lux.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff,
    First of all, Thank You. Your message clearly articulates both my and, I believe, many other peoples understanding of the consequences of these events. "They’re breaking—and thereby voiding—a social contract." While these events are both deplorable and regrettable, I must celebrate the fact that, without the violent suppression of the dissent movement, the majority of people in this country would still be asleep. The world is waking up and things WILL be changing. I am extremely proud to have been your student, and you can be sure that I will be registering your strong disapproval tomorrow at the occupy cal mass-sleep out. Thanks again Jeff,
    One LOVE