On teaching a writing class in a classroom whose door was recently knocked off its hinges by the police

by zunguzungu

At 3 o’clock today, I will teach my first “normal” class since the strike of last week and since the confrontation between UC Berkeley students and the BPD, the SFPD, and riot cops from the Alameda county Sheriff’s office. This happened (and the occupation was of my classroom!), so I need to take account of it somehow:

So I wrote the following email to the English graduate student listserv, and I reproduce it here because, well, why not. And while I began the email with the fear that “controversial topics…are met with instant and personalized reactions,” I didn’t realize that I would receive an email from someone I consider a friend within minutes, calling what I had written “garbage” without having read it. This is dispiriting and makes me sad. But I still think it was the right decision to send it.

I write this email with a certain amount of trepidation, since we seem to have reached a point where controversial topics on the listserv are met with instant and personalized reactions, and that’s not what I’m hoping for. But I think we’re all in the same boat now, and we can best address that by talking to each other about how we’re dealing with it (especially since it seems unlikely that this will be the last of it). And I’d like to know how other people are addressing the issue. For me, it is unavoidable because at least a half dozen of my current students were out there last Friday, and at least one of them was beaten by police batons. I’m not going to urge people what to say about what happened (or even to say anything at all), but when we go into our classrooms this week to teach, please, please, please be aware of the senseless severity of what happened on Friday as well as the size of the confrontation. If you haven’t seen the youtube videos (though you should), you should know that the confrontation between students and police wasn’t just ugly and protracted, it was intermittently violent to an extent that still shocks me. And while I’m sure the police will believe that they were fully justified in the amount of force they used, I’m also quite sure that most of the students who were out there on Friday will be of the opinion (which I share) that the administration showed itself to be callously indifferent to the welfare of its students when its first response to non-violent student protest was to call out the riot police who used riot shotguns, tear gas, and batons to control a crowd that formed in response to their presence.

I’m not going to say anything about the occupation itself (though the fact that it happened in the very classroom I’ll teach in makes it hard to avoid), but it seems to me important to remember that the vast, vast majority of the students who were beaten and shoved by police and were staring down the barrels of riot shotguns were not the people who occupied Wheeler Hall. They were simply students who were standing there watching, and since they were treated as criminals, almost from the very start, I will be introducing the concept of “interpellation” to my students today (by reference, conveniently, to an event that happens in today’s reading of the novel Cities of Salt, where a bedouin who is treated as a rebel when he seeks redress (but before he becomes a rebel), then becomes a rebel as a result of having been interpellated as such.)

I am going to do this in my classroom, because it seems to me to be the best way I can meet my responsibility to my students, as I define it. And we will each define that responsibility differently. But however we choose to address what happened, I think we would do well to remember that while only about forty of our students were actually occupying classrooms (and only a handful were pulling fire alarms or whatever) several thousand of our students had the experience of riot police pointing shotguns at them, for no apparent reason. And while they may have become increasingly hostile to the police as the day went on (though, to their credit, non-violent), this was a situation created by the police themselves. I can’t reiterate enough how shocking and infuriating it was to watch students who were literally doing nothing, standing with their hands at their sides or in their pockets, be pushed and beaten by riot cops in full riot gear. Students threatening to do what, mill around? were beaten with batons. I am absolutely furious that passive non-violent student protest was so quickly met with inarticulate violence, and since the administration bears the bulk of the responsibility for having created that situation, I hope you can understand how infuriating and disingenuous I find Birgeneau’s last email on Friday to have been. To quote 41 Geography grad students who wrote an open letter to Birgeneau:

“we are insulted by the euphemistic claim that “a few members of our campus community may have found themselves in conflict with law enforcement officers.” What we observed, and what is well-documented, was the police indiscriminately striking, shoving, and knocking over unarmed and non-aggressive students who were fully within their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Further, to argue that the protests “necessitated significant police presence to maintain safety” makes a mockery of the fact that the only threat to safety on Friday was the police presence itself. The broken fingers sustained by two protesters and the bruises and welts sustained by many were not inflicted by their fellow peaceful demonstrators, but by the police themselves.”

Whatever one thinks of the original occupiers themselves, the issue for me (and for my students who were there, I imagine) is now what happened outside Wheeler Hall, not inside it. And I want to say again that I think our students behaved with admirable restraint; the police have claimed that one of them was sent to the hospital for injuries, but in all frankness, I cannot imagine how that could have possibly occurred, how unarmed protesters could have managed to injure a cop in riot gear, and I saw no attempts by the protesters to harm the police at any time (and I was there most of the day). On the other hand, the report that a student requires reconstructive surgery for her broken hand seems eminently plausible to me, given the stupid and indiscriminate deployment of force I saw on the part of the police. But it’s ultimately Birgeneau who has the responsibility for what happened; instead of negotiating with the occupiers (and members of our department faculty were rebuffed when they offered to mediate from the beginning), he called in Berkeley city police and San Francisco city police in the morning, and the Alameda county sheriff’s office at least by one. It was only after he had introduced several hundred cops in riot gear into the situation, and only after it had become completely volatile, that Birgeneau became willing to negotiate (3 o’clock, by his own account, at least nine hours after the police first broke down the front doors of Wheeler Hall). And it was in spite of, not because of, the police use of force that the situation was resolved peacefully.