Yesterday Catherine Cole, a Berkeley professor, published an essay on the current “cycle of violence” at UC Berkeley that I consider an important and valuable contribution to current discussion.

In it, Cole properly declares that the perpetrators (and she uses that word) of the first acts of violence in connection with the current wave of student activism at Berkeley were not students, but police — “heavily armed police who assaulted unarmed bystanders located in a zone of free speech.” That violence, she notes, was the direct result of the Berkeley administration’s dereliction in “fulfilling its foundational duty of ensuring a safe campus,” a dereliction of duty whose consequences the administration “must accept full responsibility for.”

Instead of doing so, Cole writes, the administration has continued to resort to violence on campus, most recently eighteen days ago when “the Berkeley Administration” — not the UCPD, the administration, who directed the police’s actions — “lit in to unarmed student protestors … whacking them full force with truncheons, cracking ribs, bruising bones, and throwing unarmed students, faculty, poet laureates and their loved ones to the ground.”

“The Administration sets the tone for the campus,” Cole says, and “the tone that has been set since November 20, 2009 has been a trigger-happy resort to riot police and an utter failure to engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue.” In the face of a vibrant, committed, and exuberant student movement in defense of public higher education, the administration of Berkeley and the entire UC system has adopted a posture of “defeatist resignation.” They have declared the students of the university “unworthy interlocutors,” failing to even attempt “to mobilize and harness the power, the populist strength, the sheer numbers of students, staff and faculty who are currently located within public higher education in California and who are prepared to take action to preserve their fine institutions.”

All of this is, to my mind, absolutely correct as both description and analysis. But there are several ways in which Cole’s argument could be strengthened further.

First, there is the matter of the “retributive violence” of December 6, 2009, in which a small group vandalized the Berkeley chancellor’s residence with him and his wife inside. Cole implies that this act was a response to the police violence of November 20, and that violence surely contributed to activists’ anger, but the incident was a far more direct reaction to the arrest of sixty-six peacefully, non-disruptively demonstrating students in Wheeler Hall earlier that day. Police violence is not merely a matter of batons and tasers and pepper spray — it also takes the form of illegitimate and unreasonable arrest.

Second, Cole declares that with the attack on the chancellor’s residence the Berkeley student movement “forfeited the one source of power it had: the moral high ground” and “lost the sympathy, respect and participation of many faculty.” As a description of the consequences of the incident on the Berkeley campus, this may well be accurate. But as a moral judgement of the movement itself, it misses the mark. The vandalism of the chancellor’s residence was an act committed by a small group of people — who may or may not have been students — over the course of a few minutes. It involved no physical violence against any person. It was conducted without the authority or the imprimatur of any organization. That act cannot alter the moral position of anyone who did not participate in it, and if it caused faculty to dismiss an entire movement, that is a failing of the faculty, not the students.

Finally, there is Cole’s apparent conflation of the illegal and the violent. Destruction of property may perhaps be described as violent, even if it is not violence of the same kind or seriousness as brutalization of people. But a peaceful demonstration, even when it takes the form of an illegal occupation of a campus building, cannot be described as “violent” in any meaningful way. To the extent that such actions contribute to a cycle of violence that cycle might more accurately be described as a spiral — the spiral into greater and more egregious violence of an institution frustrated by student noncompliance with its regulations.

Update | In this post I’ve emphasized my areas of agreement with Cole’s piece, rather than underscoring the places where our analysis differs. But this critical response to Cole is well worth reading, though its reading of Cole is less charitable than mine. This passage in particular makes a crucial point:

Let us be clear: the purpose of the student movement is not to negotiate the privatization of the university with administrators. Students have tried again and again to reach out to the administration, but to no avail. The problem is not that administrators like Yudof and Birgeneau are hard of hearing; they have heard our message and they are ignoring it. The days are long gone when university administrators thought it their job to protect and safeguard affordable higher education; they’re paid to manage the university system like the multi-billion-dollar commercial enterprise that it is, which is exactly what they’re trying to do, students and faculty be damned.