Saturday, November 19, 2011

Adding Injury to Insult: Campus Police and University Administrations

Students today at public universities like the University of California and the California State University systems have significant reason to feel insulted. In just the past decade tuition has more than doubled at UC and nearly tripled at the Cal State system. They have to listen to lectures from people like me who went to UC for almost nothing and have had, in many cases, great opportunities to pursue our ambitions and passions, while they face the prospect of graduating with tens of thousands in debt into a job market that is likely to be stagnated for years.

Mobilized by the nationwide "Occupy Wall Street" movement, and with perfect reason (noting the relationship between government for the 1% and the long term strangulation of public higher education) students at several UCs have undertaken non-violent occupations in settings, like Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, that pose no significant burden to ordinary University activities. But rather than finding that University administrations have their back, students, and those faculty and staff protesting with them have been violently set upon by police.

The week before last it was the Berkeley campus, where police used batons on non-violent demonstrators linking arms around a tent encampment (videos and reporting from Bay Citizen here). Yesterday it was UC Davis, where videos clearly show police calmly pepper spraying passive sitting students preparatory to arresting them (NYTimes coverage here).

The Chancellors at both universities have called for investigations, but the real question is why police were ever deployed to clear these assemblies at all. Since 9/11 campuses have begun to define even non-violent protest and civil disobedience as an unacceptable threat to security the prevention of which warrants the ready use of police violence. Videos show a policing approach in which casual use of chemical weapons, non-lethal guns that look like automatic weapons (but shoot cotton pellets), and batons. In the absence of reasonable suspicion of violence, non-lethal offensive police weapons should not be brought to or displayed at peaceful campus protests. They serve only to chill speech, provoke panic, and become a moral hazard in favor of violence. Using police force to clear peaceful campus protests should be a last resort only when negotiations and passive measures have failed to restore vital university functions.

The focus of investigations should not just be on individual police misconduct but on misguided university administration policies that have treated their own students as an intolerable threat to university security. More than even the tuition increases these policies raise the question of whose benefit these universities are operating for.


Reclaim UC! said...

Unfortunately, not only will the investigation target individual officers as "bad apples," as you suggest, but in addition it will almost inevitably lack any the authority to enforce its conclusions. This is what happened in the wake of the police riot at Wheeler Hall in 2009, when students were beaten (one graduate student's hand was smashed to pieces) and shot with rubber bullets. I believe it took nine months for the report to even be written; and as we saw the other day, it clearly hasn't caused an overhaul in police protocols or administrative priorities.

We cannot rely on their own investigations if we want anything to change.

callesur said...

Initially, I was quite confused by administration responses to the protests. In particular, I couldn't see why an ostensibly technocratic group of administrators would respond to protests in such an obviously counterproductive way. How could the lessons of Ed Levi not have been learned?

Perhaps because administrators now see the problem differently. Post Seattle, post 9/11, protests are seen as "unacceptable threats to security." The appropriate response to a real security threat isn't to wait it out, the line of thinking must run; the only response is to end it.

But isn't one of the key skills of a technocrat the ability to see what is really at stake? Isn't the ability to use detached reason to define and solve problems the very essence of the technocrat? At most, the protests should have registered with the technocratic mind to suggest something about public opinion. At most. I'm quite frankly surprised they were even on the technocratic radar.

Does all of this suggests something of a shortcoming among administrators to think through the sources of risk on a campus? Maybe, but that's odd. Administrators are nothing if not familiar with campuses. Although I can see how a certain militarization (the so-called Miami Model) might creep into police forces, very different dynamics seemed to be involved at the campus level.

It's harder to see how the Miami Model could be considered a viable alternative among university administrators. But, then again, I have been surprised by official reactions for the past month.