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Berkeley’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad response to #occupycal

Michael Eisen, Professor of molecular and cell biology | November 10, 2011

Yesterday, a group of UC Berkeley students, working under the banner of “Occupy Cal”, sought to set up an encampment in the middle of UC Berkeley’s campus to highlight the connection between the banking industry, the global financial crisis, and the financial plight of our public universities.

I didn’t participate in the protests (it’s not my kind of thing), but I wandered by a few times during the day on my way across campus. When I went by in the early afternoon, there was a small group operating under the eye of a few police – it was boisterous but peaceful. At some point later in the afternoon, the university sent in the police (the footage I saw was of Alameda County Sheriffs) who inexplicably began beating students with batons and throwing several to the ground and arresting them.

It was an unbelievable scene representing a moral breakdown on the part of the university. Predictably, word of the beatings and arrests spread quickly, leading to a significant increase in the size of the protest, which led to further confrontations and more arrests as the night went on.

I am truly dumbfounded by the way the university responded. It’s not like the whole thing caught them by surprise. The protest was well advertised. The organizers made their intentions clear, and the university was sending out “warnings” to faculty and staff all week about the impending “disruptions”.  Which means that they decided in advance to do whatever they had to to prevent the students from setting up camp.

But why? Anyone who has ever seen student protests (and the UCB administration has seen many) would surely have known that the students wouldn’t take down their tents or leave Sproul Plaza just because they were asked – or even threatened with arrest. It’s not the nature of these things. And so the administrations decision to to keep the plaza clear at all costs had no other possible outcome than this kind of violent confrontation.  This means they either showed a complete lack of judgment and foresight, or, as is more likely, they knew that this would happen and decided to proceed with this course of action anyway.

I have to admit that I am often somewhat sympathetic to the university’s position in these kind of things – I don’t particularly like this kind of protest, both aesthetically and tactically – and I think the protesters often are targeting the wrong people (it’s really not the universities fault that the state has been cutting the funds it receives). But no matter what one feels about the wisdom of protests, there is no way to view the universities response as anything but an inexcusable lapse in judgment and a complete moral failure.

And, in this case, I think the protesters have actually gotten it right. There IS a direct connection between the financial crisis and the state of public education – both in the obvious sense that there is less money to go around, but also because the related choice we have made to cut taxes at the expense of public education will have devastating consequences on our competitiveness and quality of life in the future.

The university should have allowed this protest to proceed unobstructed not only because it would have avoided the ugly scenes we saw yesterday, but also because the protesters are on the university’s side – or at least on the side where the university should be. The way forward for public institutions like UC is not to privatize – it’s not to suppress opposition to dreary state of politics and the economy in this country – but rather to see the frustration that is manifest in things like this protest come to some fruition that leads to a rethinking of our priorities as a state and a nation. How the university thinks that pictures of police acting on its behalf beating unarmed and peaceful students helps this cause is beyond me.

[One last note. There is a lot of anger amongst my friends and colleagues about the behavior of the police – who obviously should not have been beating the protesters. But I place the blame squarely on whoever decided it was essential that they disperse the protesters at any cost. The police should have responded differently, but they were put in a very difficult situation.]

Comments to “Berkeley’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad response to #occupycal

  1. Alameda county sheriffs have not changed a bit since the late 60’s. They still appear to be recruited on the basis of being hind brain violence prone thugs and the Cal administration still responds to student provocation in the most stupid primitive manner possible.

    The current Cal students certainly do not have the same degree of political savvy that they used to. They are spoiled brats protesting a hurt to their privileged wallets, while blithely ignoring the fact that the US is sliding down the slippery slope from being an o(i)ligarchy to becoming an imperial dynasty. The latter is what they should be protesting and throwing their bodies on the gears and levers of the system to prevent.

  2. I’m so totally horrified by the acts of the University Administration who let these acts by law enforcement proceed. Nonviolence on the part of the University powers should be the rule, not the exception. The students should be allowed to congregate or occupy their campus as they see fit. I’m deeply ashamed by my alma mater.

  3. Student loans are well on their way to overtaking credit card debt. Americans are now paying down their credit card debt at a much slower pace than during the months immediately following the Lehman collapse in September 2008, but they continue to do so all the same. Additionally, the delinquency rate on U.S. credit cards – 3.04% in September, according to Moody’s, is at a record low.

    Falling delinquencies have led to lower defaults, which will keep falling for months ahead, even as the late payment curve may have bottomed out already.

    Moreover, the monthly payment rate (MPR), which measures the ratio of their credit card debt Americans are paying back at the end of each monthly cycle, was at 21.29% in September, compared to a historical average in the mid-teens.

    If that is the new normal, it will ensure that low delinquencies and defaults are also here to stay. Of course, there is also the possibility that, once we get back to full employment and consumer confidence improves, everyone will fall back into their free spending pre-Lehman pattern. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to be able to test our propositions anytime soon.

  4. So these strikes achieve what ?
    You remember those tuition fees you paid ?
    By cancelling the classes, and having the police brought out, you are wasting away and throwing your tuition fees away. Do calculation of how much you pay the university per semester, divided by number of hours of instruction, and you will see how much you are shooting yourself in the foot.
    I pay out of state, with close to 0 financial aid and you don’t see me striking. Sure, it sucks to have to pay so much money, both out of pocket and in form of loans
    But should education be free? In utopia, it would be, but someone’s going to have to pay up for it and putting that burden on the government, or some higher organization, while at the same time refusing to contribute to the rising cost of the operations, is just bullshit. It seems that people here at Berkeley, even after all that SAT and AP that they did back in high school, cannot do simple arithmetic to figure out that in order to be able to pay for something (and something of prestige and quality), the money does need to come from somewhere. Sure you protest now for decrease in fees, but after you graduate, will you feel the same way when you have to shell out extra hundreds of dollars to support the in state institutions that you are no longer affiliated with ?
    I really feel for the professors too. After years of education, I feel that some (not all) are being mistreated by the university. But then again, where does the money come from? Student fees ? State budget? The money will have to come from somewhere and I find it absolutely disgusting that people are willing to protest their hearts out, yet cannot provide one practical solution as for how it will actually work in reality.
    Government money is a collective fund with finite amount. More that is allocated to higher education, less goes towards other areas also supported by the state budget. So what do you suggest we cut out from the stage budget to support higher education? Anyone ?

  5. It’s interesting that there is nothing at all on the main page ( about the protests. This should be front and center, and Birgeneau needs to be more visible in all this, not hide behind one of the (many, many!) vice-chancellors. Why is accountability AWOL? In any case, glad to see this blog post. Not everyone is asleep. The economic violence that has been perpetrated by UC– laying off staff, slashing programs, etc. while continuing the upward trend in salaries for upper administration– has been followed up with physical violence upon those the system purports to serve. Can’t say this is completely surprising, just very, very disappointing.

  6. Thinking back, Chancellor Birgeneau presided over the tree sitter crisis that held up the High Performance Athletic Facility, during which police offered the tree sitters water and food, and were pelted with human feces. One consequence of that crisis may have been a recognition to act more decisively. Beating protestors is terrible to watch, but it is a swift form of justice to lawbreakers. Today the police evicting the campers of Occupy Oakland gave us a textbook example of how a well-organized raid can proceed with a much lower level of violence. Thanks to Prof. Eisen for his thoughts and feelings, which demonstrate how complex our reaction to these situations can be.

  7. I think as a professor at Berkeley you should know the difference between “universities” (plural) and “university’s” (possessive).

  8. Thank you for understanding what the protest is about. The tuition rise wasn’t the only thing being protested, on the small scale. Various professors have faced pay cuts while many higher-ups have taken $100,000 bonuses. In the big picture, the students are on the side of the university. They are protesting the priorities of the state. Public education should be a priority. California has the honor of having the greatest public university in the world, why would you jeopardize such a thing? Why would you not prioritize honing in the future leaders?

  9. Dear Chancellor Birgeneau,

    In 2007, you gave a moving speech at my December graduation convocation. You spoke eloquently about what makes Cal special – its Peace Corps leadership and its commitment to values such as excellence, fairness, and justice.

    I was appalled to see the video of the UCB police beating students on Wednesday in order to remove a few tents. I was equally appalled to read your letter to the campus blaming the victims and justifying this crime of violence. It shows an amazing lack of wisdom and common decency for you to accuse the Cal students of not engaging in non-violent protest. This is all doubly or triply offensive as Cal has an honored place in history as a leader of non-violent student protest during the Free Speech Movement of 1964.

    The police actions and your lack of true leadership and responsibility are the most anti-Cal values I have ever witnessed in the entire time I’ve spent in the Cal community. These actions are as unacceptable as those we are learning about at Penn State.

    With full sincerity, and in the great tradition of Cal, I call on you and the UCB police chief to resign immediately.

    Patrick Furtado
    Class of 2007

  10. Thank you, Prof. Eisen, for sharing your reaction to this unnecessary and excessive instance of police violence. Back in the day, I was once a teaching assistant for Prof. Celeste Langan, a Romanticist who I imagine is still energetic, intellectually demanding, passionate, and scary brilliant. It is just outrageous that a tenured and distinguished member of the scholarly community such as Prof. Langan would be treated so shamefully. I hope that the Academic Senate convenes shortly to demand accountability from UCPD and Birgeneau’s administration. And though such institutional service may be outside your comfort zone, it sounds like you should be part of these efforts.

  11. As a parent paying Berkeley $$$$$ out-of-state tuition this is a waste of my money. Shame on you Berkeley. Shame on you. You keep asking the students and parents to pay more and more – and this is the product you deliver? Militant fascist cops do not belong to Berkeley.

  12. I just heard an interview with a young man who was beaten and arrested at Cal during the Wednesday crackdown on student protestors. I would say that he has an excellent lawsuit against the police and the university. It just so happens that it is this weekend that I must renew my annual donation to Cal. It is hard to see myself continuing to give if the administration is going to make decisions like those referred to above that result in the squandering of my donation.
    Thank your observations. It was the only reference to these events that I could find on the UCB website.

  13. Why did Birgeneau even bother writing that response email on November 10th? What did it accomplish? Even if he’s not going to ever denounce the horrible actions of the cops, why go out of your way to justify it, by re-inventing the definition of violence? How cowardly and ineffective is that? Why should we ever trust his leadership again?

  14. Forming a human chain to prevent police from doing their job is not a form
    of non-violent protest. A group cannot just decide on a whim to set up an
    encampment on public/university property. The protesters were told to move
    by the police so that they could remove the tents, and they didn’t. Thus,
    they were enabling those breaking the laws/rules the university had
    clearly set forth. For breaking the law, they got what was coming to them,
    so I don’t want to hear their sob story. They should learn how to express
    their views in a manner that is within the rules of the university.

    • grad student: “For breaking the law, they got what was coming to them….”

      As a fellow grad student, I’m not sure whether I should be more disheartened or disappointed in your comment. Students refused to follow a largely unimportant rule and were, in response, beaten with batons by police in full riot gear. This is not objectively reasonable force. How is that response even remotely justifiable?

      It’s called civil disobedience. I suppose you would have supported the clubbing of Rosa Parks, the beating of the civil rights protestors in Montgomery and Birmingham, the lynching of those who violated miscegenation laws in the early 1900s, Ghandi, Mandela, etc.? After all, each of them was breaking the law, too.

      Sometimes, you cannot express your views in a manner that is condoned by the machine. Mario Savio had something to say about that in the 1960s. That truth and that history is a fundamental element of Berkeley’s fabric. I hope you figure that out before you leave here.

  15. Actually, it is the “universities fault that the state has been cutting the funds it receives.” Education costs have increased faster than inflation for more than a decade under the guidance of the 1%ers in the UC Regents, and their grossly overpaid administration. By not managing the cost of education, UC administration has directly contributed to unsustainable levels of student debt. New regents need to be appointed. Birgeneau needs to go. Anyone paid over $250K/year needs to go.

  16. Professor Eisen, Thanks for the article. We need more biologists to join in the Day of Action on Tuesday! Can we count on you to turn your anger into action?

  17. This episode is truly a stain on the reputation of UC Berkeley, and the Chancellor’s email “Message to Campus Community” sent out yesterday, in which he characterizes the linking of arms as violent protest and then suggests that such protest justified the manner in which the police used their batons, does nothing to mitigate that damage. I am surprised and disappointed. Must we add moral bankruptcy to budgetary woes?

  18. As the 1% move the USA toward a police-state (having already moved us into a national-security-state), the 99% speak out and get clobbered. What else?

  19. One thing that has been of rapidly escalating concern is the current state of chaos throughout the University of California that has far too many problems that should have been predicted, solved and prevented in the first place.

    Professors and scholars at the “preeminent public university in America” must do better than just watch and do nothing and/or look the other way to protect your own Ivory Tower existence.

    It appears as if you folks never learned the lessons of history yourself because you are not preventing the outrages that destroyed all other civilizations before ours.

    Right now, you get F grades for your failures to predict, solve and implement solutions to prevent the decline and fall of our civilization also.

    • Really? The fall of civilization? I think maybe the reason no one’s predicting it now is that there’s a long history of people predicting the fall of civilization and being dead wrong. I’m gonna guess that the history of that phenomenon is only about 12 minutes shorter than the history of civilization itself.

      (Short play. Setting: Planet Earth, circa 6000 BC. “Hey other proto-Chinese or proto-Mesopotamian dude, check out what I invented! I’m calling it ‘civilization’!” “Yeah, that’s not gonna last.” Fin.)

  20. I’m tired of a few faculty & students making my alma mater look bad. Those students (and apparently at least one faculty member) defied a police order to disperse. They share responsibility for the results. But the spin from faculty and those students completely denies that. Video edited to omit that part is inherently dishonest, and that kind of intellectual dishonesty has no place at a University.

    Meanwhile, the protest is down to a few dozen people today, fewer than are playing Frisbee outside Doe library. They try to claim they represent the Berkeley faculty and students, but it looks like the protestors are the 1% around here!

    • They weren’t violating an order to disperse. The Chancellor had given the protestors permission to occupy the plaza for 7 days, with the caveat that no tents or camping equipment was allowed. The video where the police are hitting young girls in the stomach with batons is because the students had been blocking access to six tents. That’s right, it was evidently SO important that those six tents not be allowed that it was worth beating students. There’s some sick irony about dangers to the “student ‘body'” there.

      Actually, to be exact, the video above is AFTER the tents had already been taken down minutes earlier. That’s why the police hit the students, breaking the line, but instead of walking through them they actually retreated- the tents had already been taken down already and their only goal at this point was to hit the students without cause. That is, by definition, police brutality. Surely even someone who misses the point as much as you can agree that that’s not OK.

  21. As a former Berkeley staff member who’s also a Penn State graduate, I think we need to gauge how we use terms like, “complete moral failure”.

    Yes, beating students is abhorrent. But it’s not unprecedented, and can be anticipated by the protesters and the community at large.

    If the the university leadership covered up long-term, ongoing, monstrously criminal and inhuman behavior on the part of one their own for, say, nine or more years, that’s literally a “complete moral failure”. What happened at Berkeley was a moral failure, but in light of what’s happening at another state’s flagship public institution I’d say you may want to rethink the modifier.

    I’m not arguing that Berkeley was right in their response. I’m saying that perhaps we need to get back to using a sense of scale in our rhetoric.

  22. SHAMEFUL! UC Berkeley should know better. I hope these cops lose their jobs — this is a pathetic call on the commander’s part. They deserve to be called PIGS when they do this kind of thing.

  23. OK UCBerkeley where on the front page of your website is your official response and (corrected) policy regarding students’ freedom to exercise their 1st amendment right?

  24. Birgeneau is a coward hiding behind the police to suppress freedom of assembly. Above all else, the administration fears bad publicity, and could care less about the students. It’s time to bring the fight to California Hall.

    • Who are you?

      It’s way past due time to find leaders to “bring the fight to California Hall” but hopefully not too late.

      Historians (like the Durants) have proven that intellectuals are as guilty as politicians when it comes to failing to meet the challenges of change that have destroyed all other civilizations.

      The fact is that UC has failed our civilization for 50 years since President Eisenhower warned us in his 1961 Farewell Address:
      “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

      Indeed, the “power of money” is destroying our civilization like all others and UC is the role model for failure for by marginalizing the greatest president we have had since WWII, as well as the General of the Army who also saved civilization during WWII.

    • Dr. UC Professor, why do you hide behind a non-de-blog while accussing the Chancellor of cowardice? Projection, perhaps?

      I’m well tired of pointless critique from faculty who won’t step up and share responsibility for running Cal. Help solve the campuses problems or get out of the way.

      What would you have specifically done about the prospect of an ongoing, growing encampment like Occupy Oakland? How would you prevent another Peoples Park?

  25. They were told to not to be there. I’m sure it’s not as one-sided as you want people to believe. This occupy movement is really screwing the part of the 99% who work everyday. Thanks!!!!

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