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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why I Got Arrested with Occupy Cal--and How

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.


Anonymous said...

thank you, celeste, for taking the time to be on the plaza, to put up with the "processing", to persist in getting the tools of the trade back from limbo and to write such an incisive analysis.

dina al-kassim

Anonymous said...

UC police Capt. Margo Bennett said: "I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest."

She should be fired for her twisted idea of violence.


Catherine Liu said...

Celeste I think you are right on to characterize the repressive nature of Birgenau's and BPD's policies and statements as arising from the instrumentalizing idea of time and space that saturates the corporate nature of the new university. No time for dissent, no time for inquiry. Expedience and short term thinking beget violence of many forms. That said, I don't think these policies reflect "pragmatic thinking" at all. I think repressiveness is a better characterization. Let's not give pragmatism a bad name.

Anonymous said...

Thank god for professors who care more for their students than for the research grants or the prestige they get for working at Cal.

Sarah McKibben, Assoc. Prof, Irish Language and Literature, Notre Dame said...

Thank you for your solidarity, your presence, and your penetrating analysis of the false thinking going on there. Now I'm even more sorry I never took a class with you when I was an undergrad English major.

xicano said...

Solidarity greetings from UC San Diego to our colleage Celeste. It takes great courage to stand on the barricades with our students. I fear the violence she experienced will continue until the current hostile takeover of the UC/nation/world is reversed or at least slowed down. As David Harvey reminds us: "If necessary, the neoliberal state will resort to coercive... policing tactics to disperse or repress collective forms of opposition to corporate power."

edstrelow@yahoo.com said...

Someone needs to see a civil rights lawyer here. Berekely's restrictions on tents appear to be a "prior restraint" Here is an Occupy case which got a restraining order against the authorities:

You need to seek an ex parte restraining order to prevent the University from removing the tents. They can probably make a case for removal after a week or two, but not at the outset of a demonstration. Peaceful protest is protected. Is Berkeley going to claim that a tent is somehow a weapon. It's hard to imagine anything more peaceable than a tent. It just sits on the ground.

Too bad I am in So Cal. Where are all those radical lawyers and the ACLU when you need them?

Edward Strelow

Unknown said...

My email to Birgeneau follows:
Gee. For a recipient of Pathfinders to Peace prize, you would think Birgenaeu just might have run across just a little bit of information about non-violence and protest movements historically.

Apparently not. Too bad Birgeneau was not around back in the sixties with me and my generation in Birmingham.

Oh, I get it. He would have arrested the man below for his obvious threat of violence and malicious intent.

Just another dirty f*cking hippie, of course.

Birgeneau should resign or be fired. He has disgraced his position, his university, and this nation’s Bill of Rights.

Maring Luther King, Diry F*cking Hippier

A colleague from Georgetown said...

Your words and solidarity with your students are inspiring. As a UC Berkeley alum, it’s very touching to read evidence that the institution I am so proud of having attended is still fighting for its life and for what’s right. I am ashamed of the Chancellor and the Regents but very proud of the faculty. Thank you so much!

Berkeley PhD 2008 said...

Thank you for the essay and your commitment. Birgenau and Bennett need to go.

Sharon Kinoshita said...

Thank you for your principled civil disobedience. As a fellow UC system faculty member, I am proud of your action. As a UCB AB and PhD, I am angered at and disappointed in my alma mater.

Harry Nelson said...

I greatly appreciate your commitment and enthusiasm. The circumstances of your arrest are reminiscent of the June, 1970 arrests here in Isla Vista, where a number of faculty experienced similar treatment.

I do wonder if bringing the protest to our campuses is `peeing in our mess kit,' however. By and large the universities were not the instigators of the financial shenanigans of either the last 30 years or that led to the 2008 crash.

Occupying *Wall Street* has appeal to me. Battle on our campuses doesn't, and may be an indication that the plutocracy has won... we battle on our campuses and they retreat to the Hamptons.

matthew heffron said...

May the force be with you. OH...and about wasting funds....2 million go to a football coach at your university, and the team sucks. How about getting that money...how about ending violent sport altogether? Matthew Heffron

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Your action was powerful, but your words are even more so. The final paragraph is especially insightful and - I feel - captures much of the essence of the Occupy protests and the 99% movement. We have been tricked into focusing on "lack" for far too long in a world filled with abundance... It is now time to engage in new dialogues and change the conversation. Peace.

Anonymous said...

I was your student back in 2003 and haven't forgotten Wordsworth since. You have my full support and I hope justice is served.

Anonymous said...

Step it up.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for supporting Cal students. When I read the letter from Chancellor Birgeneau, As a Cal grad who majored in Peace and Conflict Studies, I couldn't help but think that the Chancellor should have taken the time to talk to some professors who specialize in non-violence to get a definition of the word.

Stephen Conn said...

This is beautifully written. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

love this!

Pidge Molyneaux said...

Celeste, your mother would be so proud of you. And so am I. You rock, old pal!

Arthur Bahr said...

My sister Stephanie (current Cal grad student) has sent this and other links to me (former Cal grad student), and now I regret particularly that I never really got to know you while I was there, Celeste. This was beautiful writing and witnessing, and I'm making sure that my department and broader community at MIT know what's going on. My beloved little sis is headed to today's protest as I write this, and I couldn't be prouder of her. I wish I could be with you all in body as I am in spirit.

-Arthur Bahr, MIT Literature Faculty

Nancy Lemon said...

Thank you, Celeste, for your eloquent statement about the larger goals here. I have taught at Berkeley Law since 1988 and am active in UC-AFT. I felt ill when I watched the video of you and the students being treated so violently. I grew up with activist parents and was arrested for refusing to disperse in a demonstration against the Vietnam war. The police used no violence then; they were dealing with several thousand people and arrested about 100 of us peacefully. There is no excuse for what the UCPD did last week. I hope you keep going for a long time!

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Judith Thompson said...

Thank you Celeste, for being an inspiration for fellow Romanticists. I linked to your blog, today, while teaching Lyrical Ballads, urging my students likewise to connect Arts and Acts of romanticism and radicalism, and to take what they learn in my classroom and make it matter in the world. With no connection to UC Berkeley, and knowing you only through your work on Romantic Vagrancy which influenced mine so long ago, I thank you for leading the way!

Kim said...

Celeste, your actions and this post are most inspiring. Thanks for helping people see through the pernicious characterizaton of all sorts of civil disobedience as "violence." And for reminding us why a liberal arts education is more relevant than ever.

fellow Penn alum.

Elizabeth Marie said...

Thank you for this article and also for putting yourself out there. My daughter is a high school junior, and when she researches colleges, the first thing she seeks out is the cost of tuition. We are not in California, but I've been keeping an eye on the situation there regarding rise in cost of public university. It's a form of intellectual censorship, it seems.

I'm sorry you were subjected to such harsh treatment. I know some really good people are police officers who work for US, protect US.

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Jonathan Taylor said...

You are my hero.

Anonymous said...

Berkeley reacts too fast eh? Wasn't this the school that allowed protesters to occupy some trees for around 2 years. I imagine the UCPD gets a little tired of listening to the CONSTANT whining goes on at Berekely. All I can say is I'm glad UCPD was around to shoot that doucher in the BSchool and to get the Duggars kidnapper off the streets. GO BEARS!

Anonymous said...

I think Professor Langan's position can be summarized as, "I knew I was breaking the law, but I didn't expect to be treated like a criminal." I just wonder who do you think the average Cal police officer is? An individual with dual degrees in Ethics and English. No, it some guy who is trying his best to keep the public drunks off campus. I am sure all the police try their best to walk that incredibly fine line of how not to beat the crap out of someone they don't have to. But every now and then, something goes a little wrong. The people at the rally were breaking the law, and the criminals are now upset that the law was enforced. Get over it.
I believe in the right of all Cal students and other member of the Cal community to have access to a safe educational environment. GO UCPD!!

Oh one other thing. Taro Yamaguchi-Phillips says, “I am sure there were many other tactics they could have used..." I think the UC Davis police tried pepper spray and look where that got them. GO BEAR COPS!!

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Unknown said...

While I disagree with the cause (though I'm an alum and a former student of the Prof), and totally disagree with anyone taking over part of the campus, I can generally understand and respect taking part in an act of civil disobedience. But I don't understand purposely trying to get arrested, and then complaining that the police actually do arrest you, hold some of your possessions as evidence, and so forth. Screaming at a police officer constitutes a threat, and the first duty of any police officer is to protect himself. These officers don't have ESP of other people's motives and intended actions, nor must they put themselves at risk by being waiting to be injured.

Berkeley is such a strange city. Despite its incomparable beauty and its legacy of generosity, it's filled with so many unhappy and resentful people.

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