Last week a letter was released by University of California, Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, co-signed by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Legrand, addressed to the “Extended UC Berkeley Community.” It attempted to explain that while the administration apparently supports the cause of the protesting students and faculty on the national Day Of Action To Defend Public Education, it chose to put forth a rule that barred any “encampments on campus.” The violence that ensued when “the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy,” while being unfortunate, was therefore a direct and seemingly warranted result of the violation of that rule. The letter further suggests that students weren’t engaging in “truly non-violent civil disobedience,” and the students are urged to “accept the consequences of their decisions.” The letter is well written and seemingly empathetic.
The letter’s moral authority and implied logic are predicated on the notion that the students were not practicing non-violent civil disobedience. The Chancellor being a Physicist (and a well respected and extremely intelligent one at that) may be well versed in science, but could possibly benefit from a broader historical perspective. With so many similar examples of civil disobedience throughout American history having been celebrated as non-violent protest, we might grant the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt that he is not ignoring the facts, but simply unaware of them. For Chancellor Birgeneau, then: Civil Disobedience 101.
The term Civil Disobedience, is generally accredited to to Henry David Thoreau who wrote an essay entitled “Resistance To Civil Government” which advocated “for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” It would later be renamed “Essay on Civil Disobedience” after his death. Thoreau was not advocating for “civil” resistance in the sense of “peaceful” or “polite” protest, but civil in the sense of the relationship between man/woman and government (e.g. civic duty).
Though the Chancellor chides the activists on “violating the one condition we have asked you to abide by,” this is essentially the very nature of civil disobedience. If the students weren’t challenging a rule, they would be “disobeying” nothing. The Civil Rights Movement, very much alive while The Chancellor was in college in the early sixties, provides relevant parallels. Men and women actively involved were more often than not ignored or ridiculed by the mainstream media and attacked by educational facility leadership. They would stage sit-ins all around the US, wherein whites and blacks would sit down together at lunch counters and cafes to protest segregation. This quite often ended in them being attacked or having food dumped all over them while they peacefully tried to maintain their seats. It should be noted that police and local officials often blamed the protesters for inciting the violence done to them, and not the people who actually assaulted them. Similar situations arose with the “Freedom Rides” of the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s increasingly strange that Chancellor Birgeneau wouldn’t understand the distinction between non-violent and violent protest, since he himself has been a victim of the latter. In December of 2009, a small group activists protesting a steep increase in tuition and cutbacks, surrounded The Chancellor’s on-campus mansion, vandalizing it, and throwing torches at it while Birgeneau and his wife were inside. This form of “protest” was violent indeed and veers completely away from the kind of protests supported by Occupy movement as a whole. When violence has broken out during Occupy protests, it is always condemned.
With the understanding that the activists’ actions at Occupy Cal were entirely within the parameters of non-violent civil disobedience, a question remains: are there any other reasons (beyond ignorance of history), that the protester's actions would be colored in such a light by the administration, and that the brutality from a small number of the police would be downplayed? The central issues of the day of protest were the lack of funding for public education and the exponential rising cost of tuition (the most recent proposal being to again raise tuition, this time by 64% over the next four years).
It perhaps should be noted here, that the combined salary for the three authors of the letter is just shy of 1,000,000 dollars. Chancellor Birgeneau’s base salary was $416,596.00 last year. For Executive Vice-Chancellor Breslaur it’s $297.409.32, and Harry LeGrande (a man who previously said “I want students to thrive, not merely survive at UC Berkeley.”) is estimated to at $215,000 (according to a UC Berkeley Media Relations press release in 2008).
The authors of the letter are then living quite comfortably, while tuition costs for students have continued to steadily increase. During the same week in which these protests occurred, the University highlighted a plan (The Targeted Decoupling Initiative) to actually increase the money paid to Professors by 1,500,000 dollars over the next four years.
No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. While it is true that tough decisions affecting students and faculty have to be made in the face of a recession, especially with diminishing state funding for public institutions, paying faculty more in the time of the worst budget crisis in the history of the UC system is akin to corruption.
While on its surface the letter released by the Chancellor and his two Vice Chancellors appears to be a thoughtful explanation of the administration’s actions and a stern condemnation of the protestors’ “encampment,” its real message is perhaps more simple:
It’s ok to beat the shit out of students when they step out of line.
Producer, Cameraman, Editor
http://www.linkedin.com/in/rrproductions (LinkedIn Resume)
p.s. great job on forcing cancellation on Rick and Paulson today!
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