When activists (who are not necessarily students) were able to delay construction of a UC Berkeley sports center by living in trees for 21 months, there was no review of what went wrong.
When protesters with torches vandalized UC Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's home, there was no review. But when UC police arrested 46 people demonstrating against higher-education cuts by occupying Wheeler Hall on Nov. 20, there were complaints that police overreacted. And so -- with authorities, not anarchists in the sights -- a review was born.
Last week, UC Berkeley released the 128-page report. In academic fashion, it notes two forces that converted "an animated but essentially non-violent protest into a raw power struggle between demonstrators and police" -- without overtly taking sides.
There were officers, who in a "series of over-reactions by insufficiently supervised police" at moments overreacted, intensifying fears among students. Then there were demonstrators, mostly "young, sincere, and emotionally mobile" students, but also "a smaller group" that "set out to instigate confrontations with police" and provoke them "into high-visibility over-reactions that could be used to inflame the crowd and escalate its aggressiveness."
The review served a useful purpose in that it details the need for campus police to prepare for the worst and, when it occurs, to communicate with demonstrators and other law enforcement personnel who come to their aid.
There are also some heroes in the review, like Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard, who took the initiative to advise Wheeler Hall occupiers via megaphone that if they wanted to leave peacefully, they should sit down before the police came in. "As it turned out," the report notes, "all the occupiers followed this wise advice."
Two aspects of the report stand out for me.
First, there's this dubious theory on the use of riot gear by officers from UC and other departments called to aid the scene: "If the police had not worn riot gear, there never would have been a need for it."
While the review purports not to take a side on this theory, the review board continues, "We wonder whether it was wise to have some of the mutual aid squads try to move through the crowd in rigid, formal, militaristic formation."
For nearly two years, UC delivered energy bars and water to trespassing tree sitters lest activists get hungry or thirsty and fall from a tree. Do not tell me that the university is supposed to take every precaution coddling activists breaking the law, then risk the safety of men and women dispatched to ensure the peace in dangerous hot spots.
Which leads to the other issue -- that student protest is practically a major at Berkeley. UC police arrested a professor for cutting the crime scene tape outside Wheeler Hall. Some students told the review board that they ended up at the Nov. 20 protest simply because they wanted to be part of "the Berkeley experience."
Unfortunately, this means, the review notes, "many students reportedly do not understand that disobedience of campus rules (even quite 'civil' disobedience) can affect their academic standing, that it can jeopardize their ability to continue their education here, permanently mar their record, perhaps even prevent them from receiving a degree whose other requirements have been satisfied.
"Moreover, the rules as written are not enforced consistently."
Not enforced consistently? Hey, it's news to learn that the rules are enforced at all. University spokesman Dan Mogulof told me that the Center for Student Conduct adjudicates these cases, but the majority of Nov. 20 "cases are still unresolved."
Please observe: The academic year is over.
What is the penalty for occupying a building? Associated Students President Noah Stern told me, "It is not clear what the penalties are for a violation." He added that due-process options slow down the system.
Student advocate Kelly Fabian explained in an e-mail that punishment for student violations could range from a "warning with community service to suspensions of varying lengths." Alas, that doesn't tell students much. If there is punishment, it is veiled.
I want to make this clear: I support all students' rights to protest and exercise their First Amendment rights. But students and activists do not have the right to take over an institution that is supposed to be dedicated not to protest, but to higher learning.
If students want to engage in civil disobedience that trespasses on the university's vital education function, they should be ready to pay a penalty -- like cleaning bathrooms for an afternoon. They're adults. They should know this. Yet the occupiers of Wheeler Hall included a general amnesty for civil disobedience as one of their "demands." They must think they have a right to dodge consequences.
Mogulof noted that the school wants to "communicate early and often with students about the time, place and manner rules that govern protest demonstrations and expression, to explain the consequences of violating those rules."
He's right, but there is a rub: If there are no consequences or no consequences within a meaningful timeframe, there's not much to explain, is there?
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