There’s been a lot of attention paid to a comment that Captain Margo Bennett of the University of California Police Department gave to a local newspaper late last week. “The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence,” she said of the Berkeley protesters who were beaten by police on Wednesday. “Linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”
This is, of course, ridiculous, and so it’s been widely ridiculed. Bennett has been the subject of appropriate mockery and outrage all weekend. But if we’re going to understand what’s happening at Berkeley right now, it’s important to see Bennett’s comments in context.
Three important pieces of that context follow.
First, Bennett’s statement reflects official UC Berkeley policy. Her quote, in fact, was a close paraphrase of a formal message to the university community from Berkeley’s chancellor Robert Birgeneau. “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,” Birgeneau said. “This is not non-violent civil disobedience.” Birgeneau was cautious (and academic) enough to use an obfuscating double negative, but the content of Bennet’s statements is essentially identical to his.
Bennett isn’t a rogue cop. She was just repeating what her boss told the entire campus community the day before.
Second, This policy isn’t new. UC has seen a wave of student organizing over the last 26 months, and university administrators and police have responded to that organizing with over-the-top violence, beating and macing demonstrators, pulling guns in non-violent protests, conducting mass arrests of sleeping students. A few months ago activists took the heart-dropping step of occupying a ledge several stories above the ground in an attempted to find a way to protest that wouldn’t result in physical violence or arbitrary charges.
The situation at the University of California is bad, and it’s been bad for a long time.
And finally, Bennett’s justification of police violence is a lie. As bad as Bennett’s argument is, the true story of last week’s protests is far worse. Video of the action against the Berkeley tents shows police, again and again, assaulting activists who were not linking arms, not resisting in any way. Students were struck with batons just for standing on the wrong part of the grass — not once, but over and over.
Celeste Langan, a tenured professor of English, was one of those arrested on Wednesday. Here’s how she describes the incident:
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.
It was not violence that provoked police to throw an English professor to the ground by her hair, not even the “violence” of linked arms. It was disobedience. It was the mere act of standing between a police officer and a tent, wrists extended, on a public lawn in a public university at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon.