Sunday, December 15, 2013

Berkeley Remembers Mandela...and California Forgets his Lessons

On Saturday, members of the Berkeley community—from campus and the town—converged on Sproul Plaza to commemorate the life of Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter, peace-maker, and President who died recently. 
The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir at 'Biko Hall'

A small group of students, faculty, administrators, and community members gathered to hear remarks from the Chancellor, students and faculty, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, and the Speaker of the Assembly, John Perez.  The speeches were punctuated by performances, including one by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and the ceremony concluded with a candlelight vigil on the steps of Sproul Hall.
The location was poignant, for it was on those steps of that building—renamed Biko Hall by students in the 1980s in recognition of the young anti-apartheid activist murdered by the South African security services—that the Berkeley community once staked out its commitment to ending the apartheid regime that imprisoned Mandela and many of his colleagues and sought to break the spirit of non-white South Africans through a system of racial segregation which dominated all aspects of social, economic, political, and cultural life in South Africa for over forty years.
In actions documented in the film Soweto to Berkeley, students (and a handful of faculty) demanded that the University of California’s Board of Regents divest from South Africa to contribute to the global campaign to dismantle apartheid.  The UC Regents not only refused to concede that students had any right to make moral claims about where the tuition they paid to the University should be invested, but turned the police loose on demonstrators, unleashing violence on campus which though small in its scale was all too reminiscent in its viciousness of that wielded by the South African state against its colonial subjects.
It took years of protest before the Regents gave in to the demands of their constituents, during which time many global citizens rallied to the cause of South Africans resisting apartheid.  California Congressman Ron Dellums echoed his community by introducing a bill imposing sanctions on South Africa.  Ronald Reagan, who with Margaret Thatcher was one of the apartheid government's staunchest defenders on the international stage, vetoed the bill, but was overridden by Congress (sanctions were supported even by the likes of Newt Gingrich, who last week was attacked by other right-wingers for having supported Mandela). 
These events seem very long ago to many.  Indeed, one passer-by paused behind me to ask what the ceremony was for.  I said it was for Mandela, and he pointed to the sign-language translator on the steps of Sproul, and asked if that was Mandela.
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and Speaker Perez
But for others, the events of the 1980s were lived history, and Mandela’s passing was all the more important to commemorate for that reason.  Assemblywoman Skinner helped to lead the student divestment campaign, and she and other speakers recalled what an uphill struggle they had faced in campaigning for a cause which was not popular at the time.  One speaker praised Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, remarking that in the 1980s you couldn’t have found UC administrators willing to attend an event at which Mandela was praised.  In the 1980s, Mandela was not in vogue, whereas the outsized profits which could accrue to corporations from investing in a country with a vast and exploitable labour reservoir were very popular.
But that remark demonstrates how, even as the Berkeley community commemorates Mandela and his legacy, the leadership of the University and the state are forgetting many of his lessons.  Today, Mandela is a “safe” topic for Dirks and Speaker Perez.  Less safe is one of the unpopular causes of our era: censuring Israeli colonialism in Palestine. 
Speaker Perez was demonstrating an expansive capacity for hypocrisy when he praised Mandela out of one side of his mouth.  He did, after all, support a bill which demanded that criticism of Israeli colonialism be regarded as anti-Semitism.  This bill was designed to stifle free speech in California’s universities, which are supposed to be open and intellectually-honest spaces.  It is all too easy to imagine how if students were protesting South African apartheid in today’s climate, politicians would seek to silence them by passing legislation equating support for Mandela with support for “terrorism”. 
Today, Berkeley’s administration expresses great hostility towards those students advocating divestment from Israeli colonialism—even when student proposals for such divestment narrowly target investment in the Israeli military, and couple such calls with similar language applying to Palestinian groups.  This hostility—whipped up by the powerful, irresponsible, and untruthful Israeli lobby—is shared by state legislators, including Perez’ colleague Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the Senate.  Steinberg and other legislators have written letters seeking to ensure that campus and system administrators resist the introduction of morality into their behaviour and finances.  
So although Dirks, Perez, and other administrators and state politicians would like to link themselves to Mandela’s legacy, they are in fact occupying the same role that their predecessors did in defending something which is unconscionable—then South African colonialism, today Israeli colonialism—but also comfortable in the face of moral critiques from their constituents, whether students or Californian voters. 
Some student speakers at Saturday’s events had the courage to point out the hypocrisy—or perhaps consistency—of the administration and of politicians.  The critique appeared lost on the beaming Perez, but George Breslauer—one of the administrators most hostile towards and contemptuous of student activism--stalked, pouting out of Sproul Plaza the moment the current divestment campaign was raised.
Mandela and others veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle have themselves called attention to the brutal anachronism that is Israeli colonialism in the twenty-first century.  They speak with experience and moral authority when they ridicule the premise of the U.S. government, that it is possible for peoples to find peace if one group is held in subjugation to another, an absurd premise which echoes the Reagan era policy of “constructive engagement”, which involved writing blank checks to the apartheid government.
If we want to remember Mandela’s legacy, we should also think about the lessons of South Africans’ struggle, and we should ensure that those lessons are not lost on those who claim to support liberty even as their actions constrain the freedom of others and prevent members of our community from making moral claims about how and where we should invest our economic and political resources. 

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