Issue 2 (April 2010)

 

We Will Not Suspend Our Protest (1)

Amanda Armstrong

 

We are here today to speak against the ongoing prosecutions of student protesters by the Office of Student Conduct on this campus. Currently there are about 100 students facing charges; some of us face possible seven month suspensions. We are being prosecuted for our participation last fall in protest actions in defense of public education—actions that range from the reclamation of Wheeler Hall on November 20th to the posting of protest literature on walls and windows near the Free Speech Movement Cafe. That's right: students are being prosecuted for putting posters up—near the Free Speech Movement Cafe. 

So let us be clear: these prosecutions are political in nature; they are designed to intimidate us, and to keep us from speaking and acting against the devastating, system-wide austerity measures being imposed—as we speak—by the UC Regents. 

But we will not suspend our protest. 

Just this past month, the Regents met in San Francisco and decided that the massive, 32 percent fee increase they imposed on us last fall was not enough. They decided that over the coming years they wanted to keep raising student fees by the thousands. At the same time, they decided that the nearly 2000 layoffs, and the near universal furloughs, imposed on the UCs last fall were not significant enough cuts in staff salaries and jobs. The University plans in the coming months to slash by 20 percent the wages of dining and custodial staff, whose salaries already are not what they should be. 

With these proposed fee increases and wage cuts, the Regents are working to make it so that people who work here today won't be able to afford to send their children here in ten years. If this happens, the UCs will no longer have any claim to being public universities. And this is not just our crisis—from K-12 to community colleges, public education is being eviscerated across this state.   

And that is why we refuse to suspend our protest. 

Along with forty other students, I participated in the reclamation of Wheeler Hall on November 20. We took the building to call for the rehiring of 38 recently laid off custodial workers, and to protest the 32 percent fee increase voted upon by the Regents the day before. That day, we endured threats of violence from the police and saw our friends' bodies bruised and broken from police batons. I still remember the fear so many of us felt on the 20th. The cops were out of control—but neither the administration nor the various police departments called onto campus have been held accountable for the wounds they inflicted on students' bodies that day. And the Regents have yet to be held accountable for the structurally violent austerity measures they have been carrying forward. The administration and Regents seem to believe that accountability only flows in one direction on this campus: they dish it out and we receive it. 

We are here to claim otherwise.

I for one am not opposed to being held accountable for the actions I took on November 20. What I am opposed to is the unfettered and extra-legal process by which this accountability is being imposed on us. The Office of Student Conduct is supposed to follow a strict timeline in order to ensure a swift resolution of conduct cases. In dealing with our cases though, they have unilaterally suspended their timeline, and are moving very slowly in prosecuting us. For instance, I had an informal hearing in January, and have not yet received an informal settlement offer, which is supposed to occur soon after the hearing. This extreme deferral of prosecution would not be so unfortunate except that there are reasons for us to think that any political activity we engage in while in legal limbo—including activity clearly protected by the code of conduct—might very well be used against us at our final hearing. In fact, representatives of the Office of Student Conduct have been quite forthright about the fact that they are especially concerned with disciplining not only political activity, but even political beliefs. Some students have been told during their informal hearings that they would receive a lesser sentence if they simply said they were not politically minded. Furthermore, some of us have been asked to compose an essay in which we renounce the political commitments that led us to participate in the action for which we are being charged. All of this suggests that evidence of our politics can and will be used against us at our final hearings. This has had something of a chilling effect on political involvement this semester; but more than this, it has caused many of us to question the purpose of these deferred prosecutions. Are they designed to exact a degree of accountability for the actions we engaged in last semester, or are they designed to forestall the articulation of principled opposition to the student fee increases, janitorial pay cuts, and other austerity measures being enacted this semester? And if the latter, what does that say about the current state of free speech on this campus? 

Another concern that I share with many students is that there doesn't seem to be any safeguard built into the conduct process that would prevent us from being convicted and sentenced based on an infraction we didn't commit. Many of us are being charged with having committed physical abuse, despite our not having hurt anyone on November 20, and despite the fact that the OSC cannot produce any evidence to support this charge. While, theoretically, our final hearings should present an opportunity for us to effectively rebut this unsupported charge in front of an impartial panel, because these panels are selected by administrators, we have no protection against a hearing panel that is ideologically or otherwise predisposed to decide against us. Not only are we being denied legal council for these hearings, we are being denied anything approximating an impartial jury of our peers. For this reason, we face a situation in which we could very well be suspended for seven months for supposedly being physically abusive while participating in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. This process is illegitimate. It is meant to intimidate us. But if we bring our collective powers to bear, we can and will overcome this.  

We will not be suspended for protesting, and we will not suspend our protest.

 

Amanda Armstrong is a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

 

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1. This text combines speeches given at the Rally against the Prosecution of Student Activists (March 5, 2010) and the open press conference given in front of the Office of Student Conduct (April 13, 2010), UC Berkeley.