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Berkeley Faculty: No Confidence in Chancellor Over Campus Police Violence

Berkeley is not only a school with an honored history of campus protest; it’s also our greatest public university, and its faculty include some of the country’s most brilliant and accomplished people. So when those faculty members meet to debate police violence against the “Occupy” movement on their campus, it’s big news.

On Monday, the Berkeley Academic Senate will vote on a resolution expressing “no confidence” in their chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, because of police violence against Occupy Cal campus activists there on November 9. The chancellor’s defense of police conduct was particularly outrageous: “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms,” he declared the day after the police confrontation. “This is not non-violent civil disobedience.”

Linking arms is “not non-violent”? Former poet laureate Robert Hass, who teaches at Berkeley, was one of the demonstrators; he described what happened in an op-ed for the New York Times: Alameda County sheriffs in full riot gear, “using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students” who had linked arms. The sheriffs “swung hard into their chests and bellies.… If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.” Afterwards fellow poet Geoffrey O’Brien had a broken rib. “Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair.”

A million people have seen the YouTube video of peaceful demonstrators with linked arms being jabbed by cops with batons. Many more saw the video on TV—Stephen Colbert featured it on his show, commenting “Look at these vicious students attacking these billy clubs with their soft, jab-able bellies!”

In response to the chancellor’s statement that linking arms “is not non-violent,” students covered the campus with pictures of Martin Luther King linking arms with other civil rights leaders at the 1963 March on Washington. And some faculty members responded by proposing a vote of “no confidence” in the chancellor.

But what exactly does “no confidence” mean? Some say they will vote against the resolution because they don’t want to get rid of the chancellor, who, they say, has been good at other tasks. But Wendy Brown, professor of political science, one of the authors of the resolution, says “we’re not calling for his resignation. We’re trying to effect a dramatic change in policy.”

Indeed, the resolution, co-authored by Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature, and Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and of gender and women’s studies, concludes that the faculty has lost confidence in the ability of the chancellor “to respond appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.” It doesn’t say anything about calling for his resignation.

But the chancellor does have defenders, most notably history professor David Hollinger, who wrote at a university website that the police were enforcing a ban on overnight camping on campus, which “has some reasonable justifications” and “does not impede political advocacy.” Fighting with the police, and the chancellor, over the tents is “an unfortunate diversion” from the real issue, he argued—declining funding of public education, and growing economic inequality in the US at large.

This protest, Hollinger says, is not like the Free Speech Movement of 1964, which challenged university rules that did prevent political advocacy. Focusing the campus Occupy Wall Street movement on the Berkeley chancellor “implies that the UC Berkeley itself is integral to the economic inequality against which Occupy Wall Street is directed,” which “grossly underestimates the role of UC Berkeley in advancing egalitarian goals.” Thus, Hollinger concludes, “It will not do to blame this on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.”

It’s true that fighting over the tents is a distraction from the real issues. But who made the tents an issue? It wasn’t the kids—it was the chancellor. UC Berkeley Police Capt. Margo Bennett told the LA Times that the cops attacked and clubbed protesters because “the administration said no tents.”

The signs carried by the demonstrators at Berkeley didn’t say anything about a right to sleep in tents. The signs said, “Re-Fund Education” and “Education shouldn’t be a debt sentence” and “81% fee hikes = death of public education” and, of course, “we are the 99%.” I found only one sign about the tents: “We are not camping. We are assembling peaceably to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Even if the chancellor has a “reasonable justification” for banning the tents, why not grant an exception in this case? Let the tents stay, and then everybody can focus on the real issues. University administrators everywhere say they have to take down the tents because of their concern for the “health and safety of students.” But of course being clubbed by the cops, or pepper-sprayed, is a lot worse for your health than sleeping in a tent.

I didn’t find anyone among the faculty supporters of the “no confidence” resolution who thought they were fighting for the right to overnight camping on campus. Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of art history, was one of the authors of the first faculty petition expressing “no confidence” in the chancellor—co-authored by Gregory Levine, associate professor of history of art, and Peter Glazer, associate professor of theater, dance and performance studies. Bryan-Wilson says “of course” the key issue is public funding for higher education. “I hear people saying, Why are these privileged kids complaining? That sickens my heart. The students I teach are not privileged. They are immigrants, first-generation college students, struggling to make ends meet, under a tremendous student debt burden. These students have worked so hard to get here. It’s heartbreaking to see what is happening to them. After tuition jumped, Berkeley’s Latino student population went down 16 percent in one year. An 81 percent tuition increase over four years will completely change the face of that population.”

A different argument made by defenders of the chancellor points to his apology on Tuesday. Just before Thanksgiving break, the chancellor declared, “I sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 at UC Berkeley and express my sympathies to any of you who suffered an injury during these protests. As chancellor, I take full responsibility for these events and will do my very best to ensure that this does not happen again.” That, his defenders say, should suffice; his critics should declare “mission accomplished” and move on.

Paul Rabinow, professor of anthropology, and a supporter of the “no confidence” resolution, disagrees. “No one in his administration or the highly paid police has been fired or really sanctioned,” he says. “Nothing has changed in the administration. This is like Wall Street—protesters are arrested, but no one else…. Of course the core problem is the lack of budget support from the state. But strong leadership from the administration…not press releases and e-mail letters—would be appreciated.”

At the faculty meeting on Monday Wendy Brown expects “significant opposition” to the no-confidence motion from the sciences and the professional schools. It’s possible that some on the left may argue for a stronger resolution, calling for the chancellor’s resignation. Students have made such a call, but I couldn’t find any faculty members planning to introduce that proposal.

On Wednesday, the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, the Daily Cal reported that two alternative proposals will be offered. One, to be presented by Hollinger and history professor Tom Laqueur, is “essentially a watered-down version” of the no-confidence resolution. It condemns the police actions on November 9, but instead of “no confidence” in the chancellor, it expresses “greatly diminished” confidence.

Another proposal, authored by professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences Brian Barsky and professor of law Jonathan Simon, offers nine policies that would regulate more strictly the police use of force on protesters. It concludes that, “following any incident in which forcible methods were used, the Chancellor should convene a public meeting…to explain the rationale of the decision to employ them.”

Wendy Brown concluded, “We need the Senate meeting to get at questions like chain of command—who ordered the violent policing? And policy—why has violent policing against nonviolent protests occurred three times in the last two years? Why do investigations and reports of each incident never add up to anything?… We’ve got a pattern here.”

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine. His latest book, How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America (University of California Press), has just been published. He sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for its files on John Lennon. With the help of the ACLU of Southern California, Wiener v. FBI went all the way to the Supreme Court before the FBI settled in 1997. That story is told in Wiener's book, Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files.

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