Issue 1 (December 2009)
Violence and the University:
An Open Letter regarding the Friday Night Events at UC Berkeley (1)
Beyond any wider implications, acts of violence necessarily diminish the university, discouraging the free exchange of ideas, which ought to be our defining characteristic. Nevertheless questions of proportion and degree matter. While all acts of violence diminish the university, differences in how and how much they do so ought to influence our responses.
With many people having little more than news reports of events at the Chancellor's residence on which to base their impressions, I realize that my comments might seem to indicate a lack of common decency or at least an incredibly bad sense of timing, but as I will try to explain, I believe that the university administration not only set the stage for a violent turn in protests by acts which have repeatedly raised tensions and undermined belief in its good will, but actually engaged in most of the violence that has occurred.
I write as someone who has been consistently critical of the Berkeley administration, but also as someone who has worked for decades against violence, and finally as perhaps the only person who witnessed any of Friday night's events. (I was writing letters of recommendation in my Tolman Hall office, which faces the Chancellor's residence.)
In brief, at about 11 PM a group of protesters—lit by perhaps 10 torches—marched past Tolman and up to the chancellor's residence. They sounded quite angry. I heard someone call out, "That's the Chancellor's house,” and I remember at that time having the impression that it was said as if people who did not recognize the chancellor's house and were not focused on going there. The protesters did not, as the Chronicle reports that police claimed, surround the residence, nor would it have been possible for so few to do so. I heard, but did not see what must have been the planters and window(s?) breaking and almost immediately saw the protesters fleeing. There may have been police chasing them; I did not see any. I could not tell if the protesters were fleeing because they did not wish to be caught or because they did not want to participate in what they now realized was an escalated form of violence. None of the protesters I saw fleeing (and I believe I saw most of them) were carrying lit torches.
I did not see anyone arrested, but trees block my view of the front of the Chancellor's house, so I do not know if the arrests occurred at the time or later, and whether because of their individual actions or because of the actions of the group as a whole.
What I do know is that I witnessed enough at variance with university officials' accounts as reported in the press to make me suspicious of the rest of those accounts, even if I had not already been made suspicious by distortions and inaccuracies in previous administration statements about recent protests, which have been amply documented elsewhere.
I believe that acts were committed at the Chancellor's house that were not only counter-productive but also, more important, wrong. And yet those events were remarkably brief and perhaps spontaneous. Again, I do not write this to be evasive but rather because even among what we condemn we need to make judgments, and I believe that sustained, planned violence demands a different response from that which did not and does not strike me as sustained and possibly not even as planned. Moreover, it seems to me that violence by those whose power confers legitimacy on its exercise requires a stronger response than that by those who lack such power.
There should be a higher standard by which to judge the actions of police and campus officials than of protesters, many of them—whether students or not—youthful. (I would also characterize the actions by individual police outside of Wheeler as brief and perhaps spontaneous. I do not by this mean to excuse acts of police violence. It seems to me that police have a professional responsibility to de-escalate a situation, and moreover spontaneity does not excuse violence.)
The one group so far whose actions—both those that have fostered violence and those that have constituted in themselves violence—have been neither brief nor spontaneous is the university administration. Against all kinds of advice from a range of campus figures, the university administration has consistently escalated rather than tried to reach out. The decision to leave it to police to deal with the Wheeler occupation on November 20, to close the building, to not meet with protesters, to block faculty from trying to mediate an end to the protest, and to charge the first arrested protesters with felonies (with felonies (!) for staging a sit-in in two Wheeler classrooms), the decision to surround Wheeler Hall with riot police, all reflected decisions made by administrators who had ample time to do otherwise. The distorted, unsympathetic statements released by campus leaders days after the protest again followed deliberation and caused real trauma to many students, including GSE students who described a seemingly unbridgeable gap coming to separate them from a university they had loved. And then Friday morning, directly leading up to the incident at the Chancellor's residence, the arrest and detention of the students in Wheeler despite what appears to be police permission to be there and the failure to give a dispersal order, the decision to detain students at Santa Rita jail (an act the ACLU is investigating as a possible violation of student's constitutional rights), was, by its own admission, a choice the administration made not in the heat of the moment but after careful planning.
The Friday morning arrests in Wheeler Hall ended a week-long protest during which academic activities continued largely uninterrupted. During the week, students had been told by police that they would be given the opportunity to disperse before police began making arrests. Students came and went. Early Friday morning police entered Wheeler and without warning began arresting sleeping students. The administration has explained that faculty could not be called in as mediators because it might have undermined the secrecy of the arrest operation. Because students had their computers and other study materials confiscated and then were detained for many hours far from campus, they were put at risk of academic failure. And so, the campus's senior academic leaders now appear to many students dishonest enemies of their education. This premeditated action by campus leaders that did students real harm does not excuse any violence at the president's house, but it does suggest a need to place violence that might have occurred there in its context.
If the university curriculum is to include contentious public matters, peaceful protest is not antithetical to their exchange but a crucial component of it. And on no campus has the history of protest done more to extend the range of ideas exchanged in classrooms than Berkeley. It is thus all the more discouraging that campus officials have so consistently escalated tensions and repressed protest rather than seeking a dialogue with protesters. Repudiating the role of campus leaders in violence does not absolve protesters of responsibility for their actions, but to avoid challenging the central role of campus leaders precludes any meaningful dialogue.
Finally, many have responded to recent campus conflicts with invocations of our shared values and goals. In the face of recent events, such appeals ring increasingly hollow. It is discouraging how few faculty have spoken out. If shared governance is to mean anything beyond its formal mechanisms, faculty have an obligation to speak up about administrative violence that inevitably bears our imprimateur.
Daniel Perlstein is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley.