The Chronicle Review

Making Sense of Senseless Violence at Berkeley

The Daily Californian

Police subdue a protester outside Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall on November 20.
December 01, 2009

When University of California faculty members canceled classes last month to show support for union and student demonstrations, my students had mixed feelings. No one wanted to cross a picket line, and the university's 32-percent tuition increase had left them feeling angry and betrayed. But with finals on the horizon, missing two more discussion sessions would have been a disaster. Meeting at an off-campus pizza place for an optional Friday review session seemed like the right compromise: We could catch up on the class reading, eat some pizza, and still (in some sense) support the systemwide strike protesting the student-fee increase.

But on November 20, about 40 students barricaded themselves inside Berkeley's Wheeler Hall to protest the tuition increase and staff layoffs, and a standoff with the police grew to include a crowd of about 2,000 students outside. From inside the very classroom where my students and I normally hold a reading-and-composition class, the occupiers tweeted their demands to the administration (@ucbprotest) and spoke through megaphones to the crowd below, all the while bracing two sets of security doors against an increasingly intense police assault.

When I met with my students that afternoon, we were all a bit confused about what the occupiers were trying to accomplish. News coverage of the protest has emphasized the issue of the fee increase. But while the occupiers certainly had cancellation of the increase as a long-term goal, they hadn't mentioned fees in their original four demands, which were less ambitious and more Berkeley-specific (for example, reinstatement of 38 custodians who had lost their jobs to budget cuts and a promise that no legal action would be taken against the demonstrators). As I've learned more, I've come to understand the logic behind those demands. But when I met with my students over pizza, none of them had any idea what the occupiers were talking about, and I wasn't able to tell them.

What we talked about instead was the administration's decision to hand the situation over to the police at the outset rather than speak to or negotiate with its own students. If you've seen the photographs or the YouTube videos, you have some idea of what happened: In addition to campus police, the administration called in the Berkeley city police, the Oakland city police, and the Alameda County sheriff's department, turning a "just another day in Berkeley" protest into an ugly and violent standoff.

I was there most of the day, and what I saw made me sick. Students left with broken bones. Some students reported being teargassed or shot with rubber bullets. One young woman requires reconstructive surgery on her hand. I saw students, holding nothing more threatening than cameras, beaten with riot clubs. "We're nonviolent—how about you?" was one of the most common chants of the day, and it was answered with inarticulate force.

Some sort of administration response to the occupation was inevitable, of course. But why was it necessary to direct police violence against the students outside Wheeler Hall? (In fact, the university has called for an independent investigation of police actions and the university's own decisions that resulted in the police being called onto the campus.) The more the riot police surrounded Wheeler, the more students came out to watch. But the police treated that assembly of peaceful spectators like a clear and present danger, pushing and shoving back students whose crime seemed to be their very presence on their own campus. I cannot overstate how pointless and stupid it was. The police had marked off a perimeter around the building with crime-scene tape, and I have yet to hear the allegation that a single student ever tried to cross it. But when the police began to set up metal barricades, they ordered students to move back as they smashed the barricades into the front row of students. Students who didn't respond instantly were beaten with batons; students who touched the barricades had their hands pounded with force enough to break bones.

Eventually the occupiers were cited (for trespassing; a few had been arrested for burglary when they first took over Wheeler) and released. The demonstrating students dispersed, the police went home, and Wheeler Hall is open again. But those of us who teach in Wheeler face a dilemma: How do you hold class in a room whose doors were knocked off their hinges? How do you make literature seem relevant to students bruised by police batons?

Students have had a lot to say, and I've devoted class time to letting them say it. With some reservations, I decided that it was my responsibility to help them be as informed as possible, and I've presented them with facts that seemed relevant, everything from what the occupiers were demanding, and why, to more than I (or they) ever wanted to know about how the university's regents make decisions.

While I was originally hesitant to bring politics into the classroom, my students have repeatedly justified my faith in their maturity and seriousness. They're angry and engaged, but they're also critical, even skeptical, subjecting the arguments of the occupiers to the same careful scrutiny as those of the administration. It has made the classroom a much more interesting place to be.

But the course material itself has become one of the best tools for making sense of what happened. We've been reading Abdelrahman Munif's novel Cities of Salt, and have paid particular attention to an incident in which a Bedouin comes to his emir to get justice for a crime that was done to his family by one of the emir's functionaries. He first comes with open hands, sure that the obviousness of his claim will ensure swift action. It does: Not only is he sent away empty-handed, but the emir's men beat him and call him a rebel for daring to demand justice. Yet it is this very experience that turns him into a rebel for real.

I introduced the term "interpellation" to the class. And though I started with Althusser's classic definition—the police hail "Hey you!" by which a person on the street is transformed into a criminal-until-proven-innocent—we all understood that we weren't talking about just the novel. My students have been quick to make these connections. When we've talked about democratic accountability in Munif's vision of the Middle East in the 30s—the novel is set in an unnamed country in the Gulf where Americans discover oil—students have brought up the issue of transparency in university governance. When I've name-checked Max Weber and talked about modernization as the government's monopoly on force, students have observed that when police and crowds come into conflict, the police are presumed to be right. And as we've debated the legitimacy of nonviolent protest, I am sometimes not sure if we are inside or outside the classroom.

That seems right to me. It enrages me that the administration would expose its own students to police violence, but I'm proud to teach students who had the courage and determination to stand their ground peacefully as jittery riot cops lost touch with their professional responsibilities. But what truly reaffirms my faith and commitment to education is watching my students take something as senseless as what happened last month and struggle to make it meaningful. That's the kind of classroom I want to occupy.

Aaron Bady is a graduate student in English at the University of California at Berkeley. He blogs for The Valve, an online literary magazine, and for the History News Network's blog, Cliopatria.