This is a Microcosm of All Sorts of Things

by zunguzungu

I took this picture of Occupy Cal’s “Open University” yesterday:

You can’t see the two pianos, the book shelves, the art, or all the conversations that were happening in this space, but they were there. This morning, the university bulldozed all of it — that’s not a mistake; they apparently actually used a bulldozer — and replaced it with this tableau, which I photographed at about 11 o’clock:

The fact that they took down all the banners that students had put up and replaced them with a “Big Game Bonfire Rally!” poster is not exactly the greatest crime in the world. But the contrast is clarifying. It demonstrates how the university thinks about the kind of speech which is appropriate for the steps that — as Rachel Maddow brilliantly shows here, using archive footage and sound — are, actually, literally, the Mario Savio steps. They are actually the steps named after Mario Savio, the great orator and organizer of the Free Speech movement. It is above these steps that the university took down one set of banners and put up another, a different kind of banner of which they approved.

A second point: if you look just to the left of the pillars in the “before” picture, you can just barely see a banner that the occupiers put up, that reads “Stanford is w/ Cal.” As you know, of course, the “Big Game” is the football game between Cal and Stanford, which is this Saturday (I guess). On Tuesday, the day of the walk out and rally, you could see this sign much more clearly:

This sign was on top of the MLK memorial building, looking down onto Upper Sproul where thousands of students were rallying, for public education and many other things. These students had to strictly abide by a set of rules on protesting that said they could not have banners or signs larger than 30 x 30 inches, tarps that could be used to entangle police officers, or, basically, any kind of sign that could conceivably be used as a weapon. I know this because @millicentsomer was quizzing some police officers about it — after some law students got hassled for having suspicious signs — and this and this was what they told her. It was very important to make sure that students not have signs which could be converted into weapons for attacking riot cops, who would thereby be rendered defenseless and helpless.

Meanwhile, on Lower Sproul, at exactly the same time a law student was cited for having a sign that was too large — and thus, might pose a threat to police officer — this militaristic ritual was being carried out:

To the right is the marching band and cheerleaders, while to the left are the small crowd of spectators, a crowd whose utter tininess, relative to the throngs in Upper Sproul Plaza, I found very satisfying. Here’s a picture of that:

Stanford’s mascot is a tree or something, so let’s be clear about what’s happening here: we are being reminded that football is about destroying the students at Stanford — symbolically chopping their bodies up — and that we hate them, because we are on different sides of A Very Big Game. I presume that the bonfire rally involves some kind of symbolic immolation of trees marked “Stanford” or something equally stupid. This is the kind of demonstration the university likes, and the kind of situation in which it has very different regulations for what kinds of objects may be carried and used, what kinds of objects may become dangerous. Some kinds of symbolic actions are encouraged, while others are carefully policed.

Again, this contrast is not something to be outraged by, just meditated on. A lot of people have noted that PSU’s stupid Joe Paterno riot contrasted quite sharply Berkeley’s rally in support of public education and free speech (see also here). When you put the coverage of the two side by side, it was quite illuminating. But if Penn State’s “patriarchal pastimes” are worth condemning, then let’s also note the way the administration of the University of California, Berkeley contains that very same contradiction within it, the way some kinds of gatherings and violences have official sanction, are officially encouraged, and others are not. And then let us think more clearly about what “Free Speech” means, and what it actually takes, in practice, “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”