Last week, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued a statement justifying the brutal use of police batons on student protesters like this:
It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience… the police were forced to use their batons.
Perhaps the Chancellors of Davis and Berkeley have never seen this photo of people with linked arms. It is an iconic image of non-violent civil disobedience in this country.
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau thus joins the likes of Bull Connor, the notorious segregationist and architect of the violent repression of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, as some of the very few people who view the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King as violent.
Most people disagree, which is why King was given the Nobel Peace Prize.
Throughout my life I have seen, and sometimes participated in, peaceful civil disobedience in which sitting and linking arms was understood by citizens as a posture that indicates, in the clearest possible way available, protestors’ intent to be non-violent. If example, if you look through training materials from groups like the Quakers, the various pacifist organization and centers, and Christian organizations, it is universally taught that sitting and linking arms is the best way to de-escalate any confrontation between police and people exercising their first amendment right to public speech.
Likewise, for over 30 years I have seen police universally understand this gesture. Many many times I have seen police treat protestors who sat and linked arms when told they must disperse or face arrest as a very routine matter: the police then approach the protestors individually and ask them if, upon arrest, they are going to walk of their own accord or not the police will have to carry them. In fact, this has become so routine that I have often wondered if this form of protest had become so scripted as to have lost most of its meaning.
What we have seen in the last two weeks around the country, and now at Davis, is a radical departure from the way police have handled protest in this country for half a century. Two days ago an 84-year-old woman was sprayed with a chemical assault agent in Seattle in the same manner our students at Davis were maced. A Hispanic New York City Councilman was brutally thrown to the ground, arrested, and held cuffed in a police van for two hours for no reason at all, and was never even told why he was arrested. And I am sure you all know about former Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen, who suffered a fractured skull after police hit him with a tear gas canister, then rolled a flash bomb into the group of citizens trying to give him emergency medical care.
Last week, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper published an essay arguing that the current epidemic of police brutality is a reflection of the militarization (his word, not mine) of our urban police forces, the result of years of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror. Stamper was chief of police during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and is not a voice that can be easily dismissed.
Yesterday, the militarization of policing in the U.S. arrived on my own campus.
These issues go to the core of what democracy means. We have a major economic crisis in this country that was brought on by the greedy and irresponsible behavior of big banks. No banker has been arrested, and certainly none have been pepper sprayed. Arrests and chemical assault is for those trying to defend their homes, their jobs, and their schools.
These are not trivial matters. This is a moment to stand up and be counted. I am proud to teach at a university where students have done so.
I am writing to tell you in no uncertain terms that there must be space for protest on our campus. There must be space for political dissent on our campus. There must be space for civil disobedience on our campus. There must be space for students to assert their right to decide on the form of their protest, their dissent, and their civil disobedience—including the simple act of setting up tents in solidarity with other students who have done so. There must be space for protest and dissent, especially, when the object of protest and dissent is police brutality itself. You may not order police to forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality. You may not do so. It is not an option available to you as the Chancellor of a UC campus. That is why I am calling for your immediate resignation.
Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students. Your actions directly threaten the safety of our students. And I want you to know that this is clear. It is clear to anyone who reads your campus emails concerning our “Principles of Community” and who also takes the time to inform themselves about your actions. You should bear in mind that when you send emails to the UC Davis community, you address a body of faculty and students who are well trained to see through rhetoric that evinces care for students while implicitly threatening them. I see through your rhetoric very clearly. You also write to a campus community that knows how to speak truth to power. That is what I am doing.
I call for your resignation because you are unfit to do your job. You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis. In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis. As such, I call upon you to resign immediately.
Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy’s Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.
My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.
NONE of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn’t have dispersed if we’d wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is “remonstrate.” I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, “You just knocked down my wife, for Christ’s sake!” A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm. Some of the deputies used their truncheons as bars and seemed to be trying to use minimum force to get people to move. And then, suddenly, they stopped, on some signal, and reformed their line. Apparently a group of deputies had beaten their way to the Occupy tents and taken them down. They stood, again immobile, clubs held across their chests, eyes carefully meeting no one’s eyes, faces impassive. I imagined that their adrenaline was surging as much as mine.
My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic. It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.
I won’t recite the statistics, but the entire university system in California is under great stress and the State Legislature is paralyzed by a minority of legislators whose only idea is that they don’t want to pay one more cent in taxes. Meanwhile, students at Berkeley are graduating with an average indebtedness of something like $16,000. It is no wonder that the real estate industry started inventing loans for people who couldn’t pay them back.
“Whose university?” the students had chanted. Well, it is theirs, and it ought to be everyone else’s in California. It also belongs to the future, and to the dead who paid taxes to build one of the greatest systems of public education in the world.