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Berkeley Students Plan Strike in Wake of Police Violence

Cross-posted from Tikkun Daily by Alana Yu-lan Price Videos of UC Berkeley police battering students with batons and dragging them by the hair to prevent them from setting up an Occupy Wall Street-style encampment have risen to national attention over the last few days, provoking statements of concern from the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild, and prompting comedian Stephen Colbert to call out the AP for its wildly euphemistic description of police officers "nudging" protesters with batons. I'm glad that these disturbing videos have been distributed so widely. With all hope the public outrage over these scenes will open conversations about the excessive police force used not only against protesters on the Berkley campus but also in Oakland and beyond. But as is so often the case, these sensational images of pain and violence seem largely to have eclipsed another deeply important story of the day -- a story of solidarity, hope, community, and political galvanization.
general assembly

UC Berkeley students vote for a strike during a late-night general assembly on November 9.

The police violence that occurred during the afternoon on November 9 is only half the story. The other half took place later that night, when hundreds of students, community members, and professors poured into Sproul Plaza to hold a general assembly to discuss the subject of the students' earlier protest: the extreme fee hikes that are making California's public universities increasingly inaccessible to working-class students and saddling many students with a heavy burden of debt. At 1 a.m., the general assembly voted to call for "a strike and day of action on Tuesday, November 15, in all sectors of higher education ... We also call for simultaneous solidarity actions in workplaces and k-12 schools." See the full proposal here. This video of the strike being proposed and later approved at the general assembly captures the sense of collective power and hope surging among the protesters that night: The UC Berkeley Faculty Association, the UCSF Faculty Association, the UC Davis Faculty Association, the UC San Diego Faculty Association, the UC Council of Faculty Associations, AFSCME 3299 (the union for the university's patient care and service employees), UAW 2865 (UC student employees), UAW 4123 (Cal State University student employees), and UC-AFT (UC lecturers and librarians) have already endorsed the strike, along with the California Nurses Association and other groups. There is a sense of strength and hope among students here as the strike day approaches, but also fears of more police violence. I'm feeling the same mixture of dread and hope because of my closeness to grad students involved in this struggle. My partner and a number of my friends were involved in the protests and appear in the videos that are circulating of both the police violence and the general assembly. The bruises, welts, and tiny cuts inflicted all over their bodies by police batons (and by prickly bushes through which many protesters were dragged) have not yet had time to heal. Eyeglasses broken by police have yet to be repaired. I've been administering hydrogen peroxide, antibiotic ointment, anti-inflammatory cream, and bandages every evening. It remains to be seen whether the public outcry over the police violence will prompt administrators at UC Berkeley to rein in the police during the upcoming strike. University Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau initially sought to justify the use of batons by suggesting that the protesters brought it on themselves by deciding to link arms -- a gesture that he identified as "not non-violent," despite the long history of iconic nonviolent activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mario Savio engaging in this practice. In a November 10, 2011, email titled "Message to Campus Community," he wrote:
We stipulated that no tents, stoves, and sleeping bags would be allowed. They could gather in Sproul for discussion, but not for sleeping ... 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.... We regret that, given the instruction to take down tents and prevent encampment, the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy.

Martin Luther King Jr. links arms during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

In response, UC Irvine professor Rei Terada offered an interesting analysis of the chancellor's peculiar phrasing:
Birgeneau's double negative locution, "not non-violent," acknowledges that theBerkeleyprotesters were, well, lacking in violence, if also lacking in non-violence. It frames an ambiguous realm between violence and non-violence, further partitioning a field already divided by the term "non-violent" in the first place.... Birgeneau has seenEyes on the Prize and knows he cannot come out against non-violent civil disobedience. Yet he also seems to demur from UC Police Captain Margo Bennett's less subtlestatement: "The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence." Pragmatically, he's talking about the legal difference between being arrested and also resisting arrest. Traditional civil rights protesters, Birgeneau suggests, do not resist arrest. But this claim doesn't bear scrutiny. It must be said that guides to civil disobedience often advise not resisting arrest on practical grounds: it's an additional and gratuitous charge if you're being arrested anyway, and conviction on resisting arrest disallows a civil rights complaint against police. It's also difficult to say how often "traditional" civil rights protesters resisted because resisting arrest was so often charged to promote conviction in the absence of other persuasive offenses. What constitutes physical resistance is itself in the realm of perceptual ambiguity, to the interest of which this kind of protest calls attention. Even so, the docket records of civil rights struggle show too much resistance for it to be plausible to assert that it was no part of the tradition Birgeneau wants to honor.
Faced with analyses such as this and public outcry over the videos from November 9, some University of California administrators and police have begun to acknowledge that the violence against students was perhaps unwarranted. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:
"We're extremely disturbed by the images on the video and will work very hard to not repeat the violence on Tuesday," said Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor of public affairs, who sits on the school's crisis management team formed last year to improve their handling of protests.
To avoid creating additional scenes of police hitting students with batons, however, UC Police Chief Mitch Celaya told the Chronicle that the police may instead use tear gas and pepper spray -- substances which may look less brutal on camera, but which can have even more pernicious effects:
Celaya said officers chose not to use pepper spray and tear gas on protesters last week because the effects can be worse than using batons. But as police plan for this week's protests, Celaya said, "I'm looking at it."
Will university administrators authorize the police to unleash chemical agents on protesters guilty only of the "violence" of linking arms and chanting during Tuesday's strike? With hope, enough public scrutiny will inspire them to treat the legacy of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s as something more than the namesake of a campus café. To read more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s free newsletter, sign up for Tikkun Magazine emails or visit us online. You can also like Tikkunon Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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