Berkeley Chancellor's Disturbing Response to Police Beating

The video of police beating UC Berkeley students last Wednesday night is hard to watch. Unfortunately, the response of the UC Berkeley administration has been equally disturbing.
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By now, many have seen the video (embedded below) of police beating UC Berkeley students on campus Wednesday night. Some of the students were linking arms and had refused commands to move. Instead of arresting them, police in riot gear began beating them with batons. The video -- in which the students' shock is palpable -- is hard to watch. Unfortunately, the response of the UC Berkeley administration has been equally disturbing.

On Thursday afternoon, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau offered the following justification for the officers' violence:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers' efforts to remove the tent. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them. We regret that, given the instruction to take down tents and prevent encampment, the police were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy. We regret all injuries, to protesters and police, that resulted from this effort.

Bizarrely, the Chancellor suggests that the difference between protestors engaging in a) honorable civil disobedience and b) police obstruction justifying violence is whether the protestors are linking arms with each other. Since when is linking arms and standing ground not non-violent civil disobedience? Would the beating have been necessary if the students had gone limp, or would that somehow have been more "honorable" than linking arms? Do students protesting on campus need to tell police officers they are willing to submit to arrest in order to avoid being beaten?

The chancellor wrote Thursday that the UC Berkeley Police Review Board will "ultimately determine whether police used excessive force under the circumstances." We know what the chancellor thinks. He thinks the students in the video below were violent (or, in his words, "not non-violent"). For this reason, it was necessary for the police to beat them. In fact, he wrote that the police were "forced" to use their batons.

The chancellor's letter was also signed by UC Berkeley's provost and vice chancellor for student affairs. I trust that the Police Review Board will not be deterred from conducting an independent review, despite the very public backing of the police action by Berkeley's top officials. Whether these officials will learn from whatever conclusions the Police Review Board draws, however, is an open question. Recent experience leaves me skeptical.

In response to November 2009 violence between police and protestors at UC Berkeley's Wheeler Hall, the Police Review Board issued a thorough, comprehensive report recommending all sorts of improvements to the way it handles exactly the kind of demonstration that occurred again on campus this week. Among the Board's many recommendations was that the police use something like the following script when communicating with occupying protestors:

For the reasons we have explained, we are now ordering you to [move back behind X line]. We will give you three minutes to comply voluntarily. If you do not comply voluntarily you will be committing a criminal offense, as well as a violation of campus rules that could affect your academic standing. By refusing to comply, you will force us to use physical means to move you. We don't want to have to do that, but if we must, we will. We will use only such physical means as your conduct makes necessary. If you do not resist physically, you will not be injured.

Watch the video below, and see for yourself whether it looks like U.C. has learned any lessons from the November 2009 demonstrations:

UPDATE: On Monday, the chancellor sent another message to the U.C. Berkeley community, which seems to (but does not actually) walk back some of his earlier comments. In his new message, the chancellor reveals that he had not actually viewed the videos of the police action on campus before stating in a campus-wide email that the police "were forced" to use their batons on students. Releasing his statement without watching the videos was inexcusably irresponsible, in my view. Moreover, the chancellor, referring to the videos he has now seen, says, "[s]adly, they point to the dilemma that we face in trying to prevent encampments." The dilemma is whether to arrest students to prevent an encampment, about which there can be legitimate debate. There is no dilemma when it comes to whether campus police need to beat peacefully protesting students. It's actually pretty simple: they don't.

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