Berkeley is not only a school with an honored history of campus protest; it’s also our greatest public university, and its faculty include some of the country’s most brilliant and accomplished people. So when those faculty members meet to debate police violence against the “Occupy” movement on their campus, it’s big news.
On Monday, the Berkeley Academic Senate will vote on a resolution expressing “no confidence” in their chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, because of police violence against Occupy Cal campus activists there on November 9. The chancellor’s defense of police conduct was particularly outrageous: “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms,” he declared the day after the police confrontation. “This is not non-violent civil disobedience.”
Linking arms is “not non-violent”? Former poet laureate Robert Hass, who teaches at Berkeley, was one of the demonstrators; he described what happened in an op-ed for the New York Times: Alameda County sheriffs in full riot gear, “using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students” who had linked arms. The sheriffs “swung hard into their chests and bellies.… If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.” Afterwards fellow poet Geoffrey O’Brien had a broken rib. “Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair.”
A million people have seen the YouTube video of peaceful demonstrators with linked arms being jabbed by cops with batons. Many more saw the video on TV—Stephen Colbert featured it on his show, commenting “Look at these vicious students attacking these billy clubs with their soft, jab-able bellies!”
In response to the chancellor’s statement that linking arms “is not non-violent,” students covered the campus with pictures of Martin Luther King linking arms with other civil rights leaders at the 1963 March on Washington. And some faculty members responded by proposing a vote of “no confidence” in the chancellor.
But what exactly does “no confidence” mean? Some say they will vote against the resolution because they don’t want to get rid of the chancellor, who, they say, has been good at other tasks. But Wendy Brown, professor of political science, one of the authors of the resolution, says “we’re not calling for his resignation. We’re trying to effect a dramatic change in policy.”
Indeed, the resolution, co-authored by Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature, and Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and of gender and women’s studies, concludes that the faculty has lost confidence in the ability of the chancellor “to respond appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.” It doesn’t say anything about calling for his resignation.