“The vigor of these baton thrusts is most distressing and should not be repeated”

by zunguzungu

Yesterday, the committee formed to review how the police handled the November 9th “Occupy Cal” thing last November — which I wrote about here — released their findings, only seven months later and squarely in the middle of summer vacation, when the maximum number of people would be not paying attention.  Read it if you’re a glutton for punishment like me; there are all sorts of lovely sentences like the one I quoted in my title. Perhaps slightly less vigorous baton thrusts, if you don’t mind, and if it’s not to much trouble.

Or don’t. It’s a shit-show, as usual; it’s absolutely filled with examples of individual police doing all sorts of things wrong, and lots of hairsplitting about whether protesters are merely “nonviolent” or also “non-compliant”: if you actively resist, you can be (and presumably should be) beaten with clubs until you comply. So, you know, awesome. As ReclaimUC is right to point out, the most important thing to notice is that the document adopts a “best practices” approach to policing protests: Given that it is necessary to take down the tents at all costs, the document presumes, how can we beat as few nonviolent students with clubs as possible while doing it? The problem is administrative, a technical problem. What tools can ensure total compliance while producing the minimum number of distressing PR images? Perhaps if the baton thrusts were 40% less vigorous, they would get the job done without being distressing.

The first 33 pages of the report are only worth reading if you want to see how moral subservience to administrative power clothes itself in the pretense of critique. But there is a kind of dissenting opinion included — called the “addendum” — at the end, by law student Eve Weissman (which you can read here) and it shreds much of the preceding argument. Three juicy bullet points:

  • “It is distressing that campus leadership continues to assume that “outside elements” pose an imminent threat, despite evidence to the contrary. Campus leadership should not prepare for protests based on the faulty assumption that individuals from outside the UC Berkeley community will be present – not without concrete evidence that this is the case and that such individuals will ferment disruption.”
  • “The Report does not address whether the campus leadership and police had a legal basis to remove the tents. This is a significant omission…Just as campus leadership should not respond to protests based on faulty factual assumptions, they should not respond on the basis of unclear or erroneous legal premises.”
  • “Based on both legal standards and the campus’s own written policies (detailed in the PRB Report), that the responses of campus leadership and law enforcement on November 9 were inconsistent with campus norms existing at that time. Campus leadership and law enforcement should have known that removing tents from Sproul Plaza in the middle of the day at the height of the protest would require use of force and likely the use of batons. Despite the no-encampment policy, it is unclear why they chose to take such action.”

I would put it more succinctly: the campus administration did whatever they wanted, empowered the police to do whatever they wanted, and did so because they knew that no real oversight of their actions would occur, and they were right to think that. They did what they did because they knew they could get away with it, and seven months later, they more or less have gotten away with it. This “tepidly worded” report — as an unusually punchy Nanette Asimov put it for the Chronicle — just provides the appearance of oversight, and it will be as swiftly ignored and forgotten as the Brazil report (around a similar incident in 2009) has been. Indeed, this PRB report is the first time since the Brazil report was released that anyone has even pretended the Brazil report mattered; the administration certainly filed it away and forgotten it, except for occasions like this one, where they’re all “we had a review, totally, we’re totally looking into it.”

Anyway. Other than Weissman’s evisceration, the only point in reading the report is to let the logic of sentences like this one filter through your brain:”

“Some members of the committee do not think that pulling protestors by their hair is consistent with campus norms; others believe it is effective and creates little risk of permanent injury.”

I think this really crystallizes the mindset of the committee, because it shows that A. we have replaced “legality” with “norms,” and B. when the committee to review police behavior can’t decide if pulling protesters by their hair is okay or not, it should be clear that there are no norms. It isn’t even that some people think it’s okay to do so, in other words; it’s that when some people think its fine and some people don’t, the end result is: the police will do whatever they want. If they want to grab a non-resisting protester by her hair and throw her to the ground — this time, next time, every time — they will. The norm is that they can do whatever they want, and the administration will back them up, and the Police Review Board (chaired by law professor Jesse Choper) will  ratify that non-existence of oversight. Rinse and repeat.