Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Police Are Not There to Create Disorder....

Other gray hairs will recall this as the first clause of one of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago (a man my father honored by calling Joseph Stalin the Daley of world history, read his wikipedia entry here) most famous malapropisms; becoming exasperated at a press conference during the disastrous Democratic National Convention of 1968 the Mayor exclaimed: "Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all– the policeman isn't there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

But create disorder the police did in Chicago, smashing heads of anti-Vietnam war protesters and journalists alike, and leaving the city with an image of violence and disorder that would replace that of Al Capone for a generation. The violence may have played well in the Mayor's reactionary machine politics base, but nationally and internationally it gave the city a black eye. As for the Chicago police, an entire generation grew up thinking of them as fascist thugs, a sentiment exuberantly exorcised by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in the ballet like destruction of numerous Chicago Police cars in the movie Blues Brothers (1980).

In contrast, where we lived in a south side neighborhood adjoining the University of Chicago, the tumultuous late '60s and early '70s passed with nary an exciting police-student clash. University of Chicago President Ed Levi (who died in 2000 and whose centenary is this year) tried an unconventional strategy to deal with the campus strife of the 1960s. Levi had a university police force that was reputed to be the third largest force in the state of Illinois at his disposal, but when students dug trenches on the quads and tried to mount a Columbia/Harvard type take over, he resolutely ignored them and refused to call out the police. Eventually, boredom and the Chicago winter cleared the camps without a dramatic media centric confrontation. Levi came out of the period with a reputation as the best university president of his time and was appointed Attorney General of the United States by President Ford. His successful efforts to restore confidence in the legality of executive power in the aftermath of the Watergate and Ford's pardon of former President Richard Nixon, made him one of the top AGs of the 20th century.

Berkeley in contrast suffered multiple violent incidents as anxious administrators, opportunistic politicians like Governor Ronald Reagan regularly unleashed police and ultimately military power to repress the genuine anguish of a generation ripped apart by an an unwinnable or even explainable war. But the University kept repeating its mistakes. I was an eye witness to the most violent incident between People's Park and the present, the "Shanty-town riot" of 1985 (read about the events here). 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.

Disinvestment turned out to be a winning cause ultimately endorsed by even the Republican Party and widely credited with helping speed the transition in South Africa. There was no danger that Spring night that warranted a violent police assault on a group that the University was presumably in a relationship of responsibility toward. Outraged students confronted police with the most sustained counter attack they had seen since People's Park. The alleged violent resistant by yesterday's demonstrators (of which I see no evidence) pales in comparison to the rocks and missiles thrown at police that night. I saw it all from the jail bus where I had been tossed along with fellow law student legal observer Osha Neumann before the attack on Shanty town began. The riot left scores of students injured, numerous lawsuits by injured protesters and several nearly wrecked Alameda County Sheriff's buses (yours truly faced felony charges and an official two week ban from coming to campus; the former eventually dropped and the latter promptly ignored).

Unbelievably, despite this clear history, UC Berkeley's leadership has once again over reacted to student demonstrations by calling out not just the campus police, but the infamous Alameda County Sheriff's officers (the Blue Meanies of the 1960s) who as so many times before marched in like the Imperial storm troopers in Star Wars and beat students for no apparent reason (see the youtube video here). What possible reason was there for this senseless creation of disorder that outstripped the disorder it was intended to prevent by a significant degree? Why was preventing a tent encampment on Sproul Plaza deemed a matter of urgency sufficient to risk the injury or even death of students and other protesters? What better place is there for such an encampment than Sproul plaza, a space dedicated to free speech? It is also a space where students can easily participate in a potentially historically important moment of democratic awakening in this country, and without having to miss classes (and which prevents no one else from attending classes or getting to their lab or library as building occupations do).

Our students (as well as everyone else here) are facing the worst economy since the Great Depression, and the rapid disappearance of a public higher education that was delivered to the generations of Californians. The protest sought to tie the rapid decline of public higher education to the disastrous financial crisis brought on by the casino capitalism promoted by the financial industry for its own benefit. They deserve our sympathy and our support, not a boot or a baton in the face.

Mayor Daley had it right the first time. The police are not there to create disorder. Chancellor Birgeneau and his leadership team must explain to this community (both academic and otherwise) the rationale behind decisions that led to this incredibly damaging result; one which has endangered our students, our faculty, and confirmed our reputation as a university that regularly mismanages protest.

Ed Levi where are you when we need you?

1 comment:

Jonathan Simon said...

Chancellor Birgeneau has now issue an email statement. I will study it more carefully but my initial reading leaves me incredulous. Apparent the clear and present danger that required this violence on our campus was hygiene:
" 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."

Pardon me, sir, but for the police overtime alone you could have paid for enough extra janitors to deal with pressure on lower Sproul bathrooms and most students and protesters can shower at their residents nearby if allowed to come and go. Tons of food are consumed on campus everyday. This strikes me as not even the beginning of a coherent explanation of why this was done.