Skip to main content

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.]