For nearly two years now the University of California has been criminalizing peaceful student protest. University officials have arrested activists as they slept quietly in a campus building, resting after a day of hosting workshops and seminars during a pre-finals study period. Campus police have used batons and tasers and pepper spray on protesters who meant them no harm and posed no physical threat. The university has distorted and abused its student conduct policies, deploying judicial sanction to suppress lawful dissent.
And all the while the dismantling of public higher education in California has rolled on. The state’s governor and legislature have at times responded to the activists’ passionate defense of their institution, but the institution itself has not.
The administration of the University of California has hollowed out the space at the heart of the university where productive dialogue and robust disputation should reside. They have thwarted students’ efforts to devise a creative, productive response to the current crisis, to build common cause in the shaping of the educational community. (The faculty, meanwhile, have mostly stayed silent and disengaged.)
And now a campus police officer has drawn his gun and pointed it at students who, seeing no alternative, were — in the words of Berkeley’s own son — putting their bodies upon the wheels and upon the apparatus, trying to make it stop.
The chief of the UC San Francisco Police Department says the students took the officer’s baton. But video footage shows that officer standing alone, apart from the crowd, letting the baton fall from his own hand as he draws his pistol. She says that a student beat the officer with that baton. But video footage of the five-second scuffle that preceded the officer’s act shows no such beating. She says someone yelled “take the gun.” But video footage shows no such aggression in the moments before the gun was drawn, just confusion that turned to shock and fear as the weapon appeared.
And yet the chief of the UC San Francisco Police Department says the officer who drew his gun and pointed it at a group of rowdy but fundamentally non-violent student protesters showed “great restraint.”
Forty years ago, in the spring of 1970, law enforcement agents twice opened fire at angry student demonstrators on American college campuses — first at Kent State University in Ohio, and then, ten days later, at Jackson State College in Mississippi. Six students were killed. Twenty-one others were wounded by gunfire. One remains paralyzed to this day.
In the wake of those killings Richard Nixon appointed a presidential commission to study the crisis in the nation’s universities, and when that commission published its report a few months later, it called the Kent State and Jackson State shootings “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” A nation “driven to use the weapons of war upon its youth,” the commission declared, “is a nation on the edge of chaos. A nation that has lost the allegiance of its youth is a nation that has lost part of its future.”
California in 2010 is not Ohio or Mississippi in 1970, of course. Two years ago I would have scoffed at such a comparison.
I’m not scoffing today.
Today I’m worried. Today I’m sad. Today I’m angry.