Close Readings: Birgeneau on “not nonviolent” disobedience

A video still of UC Berkeley protestors just before police began hitting them with batons

By now you have probably heard about last week’s clash between Occupy demonstrators at UC–Berkeley and state riot police. Student protestors gathered in historic Sproul Plaza to express solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and voice their dissatisfaction at a proposed 81% tuition increase. They also set up a few tents, in violation of campus policy. Demonstrators linked arms when police tried to push past them to remove the tents, and that’s when the batons came out. Several students and a Nobel prize-winning poet were beaten, prompting broad criticism and a general strike at UC campuses today. On Thursday, Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued the following statement:

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 nonviolent 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.

That’s the chancellor of Berkeley, for Pete Seeger’s sake, and now he is the subject of today’s Close Reading. But first, a horrifying video.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buovLQ9qyWQ

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: the youth of today have no idea how to fight an opponent armed with a heavy stick.* Also, let’s talk about what meaningful civil disobedience is. It is true that last week’s demonstration was “not nonviolent,” as Birgeneau puts it. It is also true that most of what an impartial observer would call violence in this video is perpetrated by the men with the sticks, beginning with Helmet #14, who decides at the :06 mark that safety demands he butt-end a small Asian woman. That is some violence, right there. If protestors linking arms in their refusal to let police pass is violence, too, then it is violence of a different sort. It’s subtle, but the difference lies in the amount of hitting with sticks.

But let us not get hung up on differences of degree and instead focus on Birgeneau’s distinction of kind : that “not nonviolent” civil disobedience is anything with a component of physical resistance. As his use of the double negative suggests, Birgeneau likes to define by counterexample. “By contrast,” he writes, “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.” This behavior fits with the “tradition of peaceful civil disobedience” as Birgeneau undertands it. As in the case of “not nonviolent,” though, there’s another term for the process by which a protestor is told to stop his protest and then submits to an arrest that stops said protest: obedience.

If linking arms is violence and resisting officers’ attempts to disband your demonstration is an “unfortunate” violation of the tradition of peaceful protest, where is there room for disobedience? By a rhetorical process of elimination, Birgeneau constructs a vision of acceptable protest as one in which the demonstrators gather and then go home when they are told—or, if they really feel strongly about it, go to jail. To disobey is okay, but not to “resist arrest” or “obstruct” police. So we’re talking about that disobedience which neither resists nor obstructs—hardly the effective tool against the state monopoly on violence that nonviolent protest is supposed to be. Birgeneau’s civil disobedience might better be called “civil complaining.”

He can be forgiven his shoddy construction of what he likes in his rush to articulate what he doesn’t like, though. What Birgeneau should not be forgiven is his cynical denial of UC or police responsibility for the beatings, which he manages through the cynic’s old friend, the passive voice. “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,” Birgeneau writes. “We regret all injuries, to protesters and police, that resulted from this effort.” First of all, “the instruction to take down tents” is not a given. Somebody gave that “instruction”—better known among police as an order—and it’s not true that the police “were forced to use their batons to enforce the policy.”

Helmet #14 was not forced to hit a woman in the stomach with a baton while her arms were held at her sides. He chose to do that, and he wasn’t using his baton to enforce policy. He was using his baton to submit other human beings via physical pain, to en-force that authority which makes disobedience impossible. I’m glad that Birgeneau, or at least whatever editorial “we” he represents, regrets the injuries that “resulted from this effort.” If only that effort were not a noun, existing independently of the police who beat the protestors and the university that ordered them to do so. If only there were some people involved in the injuries that resulted besides those who were injured, whom Birgeneau’s sharp moral eye discerns so clearly.

8 Comments

  1. Any UC student, in good conscience, should not remain so. The passive aggression toward university students has increased in disgusting leaps and bounds – long before Birgeneau’s statement – but I struggle to remember a response to a campus event equally as insulting as it was violent and morally reprehensible.

    If non-violence is made an impossibility, does that mean we should look into buying our own batons in bulk? We could probably use the discount.

  2. I understand that the shot callers are under pressure from people who don’t want a camp nearby turning a lawn into a latrine. But I also understand that the shot caller, in this case a university committee or individual official, is college educated, and should therefore have some distant familiarity with the American historical narrative. Thomas Paine’s Civil Disobedience, the 1960s civil rights and whatnot.

    Perhaps I was more profoundly transformed my education. Perhaps its lessons are fresher for me as a recent graduate. Perhaps I don’t understand what is at stake with regard to all the money and grants flowing around the university. Perhaps I don’t have a yacht I’m earning through the preservation of my job. But any way, I don’t understand how you write a response that permissive of the police action, yet alone call them to act in the first place. It’s a weird world.

  3. This is a not truly necessary comment on a comment, but I love _Civil Disobedience_ so much I feel compelled to say: Henry David Thoreau wrote it, not Paine.

  4. Birgeneau was in the American south helping with voting rights in the early sixties. Sadly, shamefully, he has abandoned his own lifelong commitment to liberal democratic values in support of a soulless bureaucratic machine.

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