“The Grass Is Closed”: What I Have Learned About Power from the Police, Chancellor Birgeneau, and Occupy Cal

by zunguzungu

At about 11:30 a.m. yesterday, a police officer told me and about eight other students that, and I quote, “the grass is closed.” We were going to sit under a tree and discuss things, and two police officers were watching us vigilantly to make sure we didn’t suddenly do something violent like try to put up tents. As we moved towards the tree, the first police officer stepped up and informed us that we could not walk from the broad concrete steps of Sproul Hall, where about a hundred people were sitting and talking, and sit on the grassy area just to the north of it. “The grass is closed,” she said.

If you meditate on these words until they become a mantra, you will learn some profound things about how police authority works. What could it possibly mean to declare that “the grass is closed”? Who could have the authority to say so? I had always considered that stretch of grass to be public; I’ve often been among the hundreds of students who eat their lunch there, every day, and 11:30 a.m. is a time of day when it is common to eat lunch. I have had conversations with other students sitting on that very grass, many times. Why was it that I could not do so now? Why had this stretch of grass suddenly become un-public and closed off? No signs said so, and no police tape marked it off. At the far end of that grassy area, in fact, several people were actually sitting on the grass. But those people were sitting there eating lunch. Because we were part of the group which was sitting on the steps of Sproul Hall, clearly, the grass had been declared off limits to us.

To make things more interesting, it immediately transpired that the other police officer had, in fact, already given them permission to sit on the grass. And in an instant, the arbitrariness of the rule was made evident and undeniable. Two different students indignantly asserted that that police officer right there told us we could sit here. When the second officer said nothing to contradict them, when he failed to back her up on the closed-ness of  the grass, she wordlessly stepped back, keeping her face expressionless behind her sunglasses. She didn’t apologize or take back what she said. She simply stopped trying to enforce a rule after its utter and complete arbitrariness had been made clear. To put this as simply as possible, she elected not to use force in defense of a rule which had just been shown to have no basis other than the momentary decision of a police officer accustomed to telling people where they can and cannot stand.

As part of my ongoing private project to be less scared of police — because I am scared of police — I said to her, in as level and direct a tone as I could manage, “This is why we don’t trust you.” And she again elected to say nothing. She didn’t have to. The truth of power, in this situation, is that the policy is what the police will use their force to enforce. They don’t have to have a legitimate reason, nor are they embarrassed when it is shown that the “grass is closed” only because someone with authority said so. And the grass only became open because someone with more authority said so. Such people are not to be trusted.

This was a very modest lesson in how power works. On Wednesday, several thousand UC Berkeley students learned a much bigger lesson, but in many ways it was exactly the same lesson: the rule is what the people with the force to enforce it say it is. And it becomes the rule when you either obey it, or when they use their force to make you obey it.

If you’ve seen this video, you understand what the police were willing to do in order to make people stop standing on the grass between police and tents:

The person on the left is a colleague of mine, and I’ve seen his swollen hand and watched him limp and talked to him about what happened. I saw how physically shaken up he was, several hours after being beaten, and I went with a friend to get an Ace bandage for his hand. On the right, you can see someone I know who acquired several cracked ribs. I could go on.

Or this video, in which you see the police yanking the director of the Townsend Center for the Humanities to the ground by her hair, applying choke-holds with batons, and punching people in the face:

These are not abstractions or “power” as a theoretical concept. This was power made frighteningly manifest, on the bodies of human beings who did not obey a police order to get off the grass, the very exact same grass I was talking about earlier.

Why were the tents so important? Why is that so many people allowed the police to beat them rather than get out of the way? Why was the solidarity of linked arms more important to them than the pain and indignity and inconvenience of  being beaten or arrested? Why did the police hurt people to get those tents? Why did the UC administration send the police to get them, and to use the predictably necessary and predictably supplied amount of violent force to get those tents?

These are not questions with easy answers. But in a letter addressed “To the Extended UC Berkeley Community” — and which I’ve posted here —  Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau, George Breslau (Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost), and Harry LeGrande (Vice Chancellor for Studies Affairs) indicate that they approve of what the police did on Wednesday, and argue that what happened was a simple and predictable result of people’s refusal to obey clear and reasonable policy. They draw a distinction between the “impressive, peaceful noontime rally on Sproul on behalf of public education” and the encampment that followed it, which they claim “marred” the “peaceful protest and mobilization.” On the basis of this distinction, they argue that what was done by the police was reasonable and necessary:

We want to clarify our position on “no encampments” so you better understand why we do not allow this to occur on our campus.  When the no-encampment policy was enacted, it was born out of past experiences that grew beyond our control and ability to manage safely.  Past experiences at UC Berkeley, along with the present struggles with entrenched encampments in Oakland, San Francisco, and New York City, led us to conclude that we must uphold our policy.

In order to prevent a situation “beyond our control and ability to manage safely” from arising, he empowered the Alameda County Sheriff’s department to bring riot cops in to do what riot cops do, which is control people by hurting them until they comply. This triumvirate of administrators feel that what happened was a controlled and safely managed situation.

As opposed to what, I wonder? Well, a massive crowd of students staged an ongoing, overnight sit-in in 1985 and 1986. And while the “past experiences” he’s talking about might be the tree sitters of a couple years ago, the much better historical analogy really is the 1980’s campaign by UC students to force the UC system to divest from companies doing business in Apartheid South Africa, because that movement was also a broad-based demand — using the same kinds of tactics and facing the same kind of police opposition — to force the administration to administrate differently:

In early 1977, as a response to the increased struggle in South Africa, Campuses United Against Apartheid (CUAA) formed to demand divestment of university holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. Mass arrests at Santa Cruz and Stanford sparked demonstrations up and down the state including a sit-in at Berkeley. A discussion between students and regents about South Africa was scheduled in Wheeler auditorium. When only a few regents turned out to hear student comments, students started an occupation of Wheeler Hall. In 1978, 10,000 petition signatures were collected demanding that the UC system hold a hearing on their investments by May 5. When there was no response, sit-ins were held at the LA regents meeting and at 5 campuses.

Here’s a picture of the “shantytown” the students built at UCB, outside the Chancellor’s office:

As Jonathan Simon recalls,

Twenty five years ago this spring, with the apparent approval of Chancellor Ira Mike Heyman (who was off campus that day and I hope badly misled by his advisers) the University authorized a massive police onslaught against a group of mostly student protesters who had built “shanty” structures of found wood and cardboard in the broad lane adjoining California Hall to protest the University’s continued investment in corporations doing business in South Africa. Multiple police forces deployed with riot gear to clear a peaceful Shanty town in an ironic role play of real Apartheid tactics in South Africa.

And you know what? Those UC students won. In July of 1986, the University of California pulled its $3.1 billion investment out of companies doing business in South Africa, and the California governor, a Republican, changed course and came out in favor of divestment (when facing re-election). The UC regents (and the California governor who appoints them) ended up doing what the students of the University of California told them to do. This is what’s at stake: who gets to make decisions about the University of California.

I feel a lot of déjà vu in reading about these events. According to the UC administration, who have offered a lot of empty words in support of  Occupy Wall Street in past emails, it wasn’t the aims of the protesters they opposed but their tactics. As they go on to elaborate:

This decision is largely governed by practical, not philosophical, considerations. We are not equipped to manage the hygiene, safety, space, and conflict issues that emerge when an encampment takes hold and the more intransigent individuals gain control.  Our intention in sending out our message early was to alert everyone that these activities would not be permitted.  We regret that, in spite of forewarnings, we encountered a situation where, to uphold our policy, we were required to forcibly remove tents and arrest people.

Allow me to retort: what they really mean is that the University of California is not, in fact, governed by “a philosophy,” but by the reverse: an active refusal to require a philosophy in justifying its choices. That way he can write that “UC Berkeley as an institution shares many of the highest principles associated with the OWS movement,” but also actively work in opposition to people’s attempts to put those principles into practice. This is an arbitrary line in the sand, drawn by an administration that is unflinchingly willing to use whatever means necessary to maintain their ability to draw arbitrary lines. Your philosophy is not wanted here, they are saying; in the name of practical considerations — which they define — you will be governed by government. And so the fact that students are trying to “democratize the regents,” as a popular chant puts it, is exactly the threat. A sentence like this one:

We are not equipped to manage the hygiene, safety, space, and conflict issues that emerge when an encampment takes hold and the more intransigent individuals gain control.

is just another way of saying that when “intransigent” individuals refuse to acknowledge the university’s authority, the administration won’t be able to exercise its authority, so it will therefore need to exercise its authority. This is exactly as tautological and contradictory a line of “reasoning” as it sounds, a rhetorical snake eating its own tail. To maintain hygiene, the students cannot use tents to keep themselves warm; to manage the space, students must be kept out; to address “conflict issues,” students had to be attacked; and to keep the students safe, they will be beaten.

The language falls apart at this point, because it’s not “philosophy” that’s driving any of this, but the question of who has the right to speak and be heard about what the university is for. Which is why the next paragraph truly descends into absurdity, the one where you realize you are not dealing with an educator, but with a university Ministry of Truth:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.  By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tent.  These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.

What he describes — occupying space in a way that nonviolently prevents the police from doing what they want — is actually the very definition of “non-violent civil disobedience.” On the one hand, it is utterly non-violent: linking arms and holding on to each other as the police try to knock you apart is not “violent” but is precisely the opposite. It is the endurance of violence. And second, it is civil disobedience, again, precisely by definition. They were disobeying civil authorities, obeying the authority of their own consciences and solidarity instead

I want to skim past this sentence on to the next part, however which is in some ways the most remarkable part: he argues that the “tradition of peaceful civil disobedience,” which deserves honor, is a tradition of obedience to civil authorities. He says that “we honor” those who do not obstruct the administration’s decisions, and that those who are “acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience” are, it turns out, those who obey authority.

This is not even ideology. This is simply nonsense. UCI professor Rei Terada has a great piece on what the administrator’s language might mean, but for me the important point to make is a much simpler one: they aren’t defending what they did — which would require admitting what they did — but only obfuscating it in language so bad that I can’t decide whether to call it vapid or actively dishonest. “Civil Disobedience” has always been, manifestly and unmistakably, a tradition of disobeying the civil authorities. I feel silly even needing to spell that out. And I feel embarrassed to work as an educator in the employ of anyone who would stand behind such specious stupidity. Linking arms and occupying the space between the police and their objective is a tactic used by just about every example of civil disobedience I can think of. It is, quite frankly the single best and most iconic example of the thing he says it is not. He is chewing up these words until they have become meaningless. Calling this language “Orwellian” is not hyperbole or exaggeration.

If he wants, Chancellor Birgeneau can approve of what the police did on Wednesday. If he wants to believe and argue that it is justifiable to try to break the bodies of students in hope of breaking their spirits, then let him believe it and argue it and then try to justify it. Let him tell us that when students put up tents on Sproul Plaza, the police will beat them until they take those tents down. Let him declare forthrightly that when students stand on grass at the wrong time and place — a time that is subject to the capricious and arbitrary decrees of the police and those who call them in — the administration believes its authority and responsibility is to beat them until they comply.

They have not said this. Birgeneau and his executive administrators are hiding behind meaningless language rather than talk openly and honestly about what everyone who was there or has seen those videos knows to be true: the UC will hurt you if you obstruct them or challenge their authority, even nonviolently. Free speech is a function of free thinking, and on the campus of free speech, Birgeneau should be free to say and think what he pleases, even if what he says is that those who do not obey will be beaten into submission. But let us hear him say that, if that’s what he believes. Let him admit and stand behind the decision he has made.