Saturday, November 12, 2011

Do they understand what they are doing?

This past Wednesday, riot police tried to disperse a large group from the campus of UC Berkeley. As pointed out by the Chancellor, the protestors engaged in activities that were outside of what he understands to be the tradition of "peaceful" resistance. I wonder if the protestors understood that they had crossed that threshold, and what it implies about their attitudes towards established legal authority.

For those unfamiliar with the events, this is how I understand the course of events: there was a big rally, then some people set up tents, cops amassed and told the protesters to take their tents and leave, protesters refused. A negotiator said that the protestors could occupy the plaza constantly for a week, as long as no camping equipment was set up and people didn't sleep there. When the protesters rejected this offer, the cops tried to dismantle the campsite, but were blocked by a crowd. The cops then beat their way through the crowd and took the tents.

Here's the video of part:

Here is the core of the Chancellor's letter:

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 call on the protesters to observe campus policy or, if they choose to defy the policy, to engage in truly non-violent civil disobedience and to accept the consequences of their decisions.

Basically, the distinction that he is making is between those who use the legal system as a stage on which to protest-- using their arrest for theatrical purpose-- and those who stand outside of the legal system and try to gain sympathy when the legal system imposes itself on them.

This later activity is fundamentally radical, since it rejects the legitimacy of the legal system itself. The only alternative to the use of force is the abdication of authority by either the University administration or the police. We've seen this tactic used repeatedly in the Occupy protests, but it is also paired with rhetoric that suggests that the protestors don't comprehend how these actions are an immediate and radical threat to the establishment (e.g. "stop beating students"). On the other hand, the rhetoric of "occupation" is inherently radical, but it doesn't seem to be a turn-off to the non-radical left. People apparently treat it as nothing more than a brand. But we've also seen this contradiction in the Tea Party movement, where they simultaneously spouted radical rhetoric (including the name) even as they demanded respect from the establishment.

In the end, I'm not sure exactly what these people wish to achieve, or how they expect their actions to achieve these goals. It seems that the protests have become focused on the tactics of protest themselves -- the perpetual occupation of public space for the sake of protest, and camping as a form of protest. Right now, I don't find these to be particularly compelling reasons to get involved.

However, there are some good fights to be picked over this issue. There are plenty of cities with overly restrictive requirements for permits to gather. It may be interesting to see these rules presented as a form of class-warfare, which weaken the ability of regular people to engage in political propaganda, even as the wealthy have the alternative outlet of mass-media.

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