By Celeste Langan
I participated in the Occupy Cal rally on Sproul Plaza on November 9 (my sign, "We're Afraid for Virginia Woolf," made it to the Daily Cal’s top 10) and stayed for the general assembly. The organizers of Occupy Cal asked those who were willing to stay and link arms to protect those who were attempting to set up the encampment; I chose to do so. I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said "Arrest me! Arrest me!" But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor--a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp--but also unnecessary and unjustified.
I do plan to file a complaint with UCPD, less because I desire particular police officers or their supervisors to be reprimanded or penalized than because I want to initiate a review of the police action. They could have taken the time to arrest us without violence for refusal to disperse, but instead seem to have been instructed to get to the tents as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences to the protesters. Since the tents posed no immediate threat to public safety, the officers’ haste and level of force were unwarranted. They could have led me away by my proffered hand, rather than by yanking my hair.
As to why I was there: as a tenured professor (and tenure can be defined as a right granted to occupy a position on campus without threat of eviction for expressing dissent) I wanted to express my concern about the double threat posed to the ideal of liberal education by the rising cost of tuition and, more generally, the burden of debt. On the one hand, as many have pointed out, rising costs limit access. On the other hand, the debt students incur as they pursue a liberal arts education also poses a threat to free inquiry, that central value of democratic society. Students are so concerned about their economic futures that they sometimes feel constrained in their choice of courses and majors, too anxious about acquiring the proper credentials for employment to explore areas of intellectual inquiry that might interest them but don't appear to have an instrumental value. When I was teaching Walden last month, I couldn't help but notice how incisively Thoreau diagnoses the effect of "insolvency" on the capacity to think and live freely; the time people spend reading and thinking, he suggests, is increasingly regarded as time "stolen" and "borrowed" from wage-earning.
I note the same narrowly pragmatic thinking in the haste with which the police acted and Chancellor Birgeneau's justification for his decision to authorize the police action: "We simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition, on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism." No one wishes to "waste" resources in this climate. Yet if one follows this logic one can see the looming threat: lawful assembly, peaceful dissent, and free inquiry—even so-called “breadth requirements”--can all entail some cost. They interfere with “getting and spending.” Dissent, like free inquiry, is sometimes inefficient. Dissent doesn't always have a "deliverable." But it takes time to determine a just answer to “What is to be done?’.
In my opinion, time to think is exactly what gives liberal education the value that it has. It appears that Chancellor Birgeneau does not always recognize this value. At the very least, his (unwarranted, unjustified) assertion that linking arms "is not non-violent civil disobedience" suggests that he has not taken the time to engage in a conversation with Berkeley scholars in various departments who have thought long and deeply about the nature of violence and non-violence and the difficulty of making such a distinction. The police, who are given the impossible mission of using "minimal force"--a concept with similar conceptual ambiguity--in the pressure of the moment, also did not take time to think, to consider a response appropriate to the circumstances. But I noticed that after the arrest, they took sweet time—something like four hours—to write reports and “book” us, and then, after another four or five hours, to release us from jail. The delay was caused in part by the initial haste: the officers trying to write the reports had no idea who the arresting officers were, and therefore no idea of what we should be charged with. According to the ACLU, they then violated procedure by not releasing us immediately after issuing the misdemeanor citations. There was another delay in releasing my bookbag, which had been confiscated at the arrest; when I tried to retrieve it on Thursday morning, I was told that it had to be “processed” as evidence and wouldn’t be released until Monday; only after members of the Faculty Budget Forum complained on my behalf did I get a call from the UCPD saying that I could pick up my bag on Friday. (The students who were arrested were still unable to retrieve their belongings.)
The contrast between the haste of the arrest and the delay of the aftermath suggests that the problem isn’t so much a lack of time as one of its distribution. A “solution” to the global crisis of insolvency may depend on a similar change of perspective: from "lack" to the distribution of resources like time, land, water, wealth, and education.
16 hours ago