Occupational Hazards of Patriotism

UC Berkeley students will go on strike Tuesday, calling for systemwide solidarity. Touched off by last week's police action, the strike also anticipates Wednesday's UC Regents meeting to discuss more tuition increases and more bottom-heavy budget cuts. In its way, what led to Occupy Cal is both emblematic and iteration of what's wearing away the socio-economic fabric of the nation. And things are getting a little threadbare down here on the ground floor.

Last Wednesday a thousand UC Berkeley students, faculty and staff gathered on Sproul Plaza to participate in their version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which included protests about UC budget cuts. They had been warned about "no encampments" by UC administration, but by midday about a half-dozen tents had been established in front of Sproul Hall. The university called on the Alameda County Sheriff's Department, the same agency that responded to the disastrous Occupy Oakland rally, whose officers arrived in full riot gear - 36-inch batons, rubber-bullet guns, body armor - the works. When you come loaded for bear, you tend to see bears behind every picket sign, and violence becomes, in effect, pre-ordained. How else to justify all that gear? Enforcement, not negotiation, was their sole objective. Students linked arms and stood their ground in an effort to prevent police from removing the tents, chanting, among other things, "We're doing this for your children." When the police began jabbing with their batons, which escalated to overhead beatings, the chants changed to "Shame on you" and "Stop beating students," punctuated with calls for medics. Seven arrests were made. A second rally Wednesday night involving hundreds of students resulted in arrests of 32 students. One female professor offered her wrists for cuffing, and was instead held and then dragged by her hair across the lawn. Perhaps the most poignantly naive moment came after the beatings began, when students chanted, "Cops join us."

In the chancellor's formal response to the day's events, (a re-scripting that is Orwellian in both tone and text), he characterized students linking arms as "not nonviolent civil disobedience." That double negative, not nonviolent, attempts to shield the administration's decision from the blatancy of the word violent. Because students were not violent. They were engaged in an act of necessary patriotism vital to any democracy, exercising their rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. They were asking for a seat at the table in the national conversation initiated by the first OWS demonstration. Unlike the Tea Party, Occupy is not organized or funded by political action committees, and neither can it be dismissed any longer as the feckless and transient crusade of a handful of hippies, or of the disenfranchised and the bootless and unhorsed. The disparity of wealth in our country, the vanishing middle class, and a sclerotic political system are driving our citizenry to its knees.

Universities are charged with the responsibilities and obligations of in loco parentis, and as with any parent, protecting its students is the highest priority. Each and every one of UC's employees is required to sign an oath supporting the Constitution, which as I recall lists our civil liberties. And physical assault, as far as I know, has been a crime since before the Magna Carta. As my daughter, a graduate student at Cal, remarked, "Here we are trusting these people not only to uphold the laws, but to do what's right, what's moral and ethical. And in this case they did neither."

Violence, whether instigated by protesters or police, is deplorable and distracting. It generates a background noise that makes it hard to hear when we're all finally sitting at that table, ready to talk, ready to listen. Being heard is what America is all about, after all, and it's not a solo, it's a chorus.

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