No Confidence

On Monday, November 28, 2011 the academic Senate at the University of California, Berkeley met to consider resolutions condemning the most recent episode of police violence on campus. As is now well known, militarized police units were unleashed on the Berkeley campus on November 9th to preemptively smash any student-led attempts to erect tents in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. The police viciously attacked faculty and students alike with batons. The batons damaged organs and broke bones. Faculty and students were unarmed; the police alone were armed and, not coincidentally, uninjured. The leaders of the university defended these beatings on the grounds that they were necessary to ensure that the “health and public safety” of the community would be maintained. They insisted that protestors linking arms together was “not non-violent.” This constituted a genuinely novel and singular contribution to political thinking. After the beatings, these leaders also explained that the students with their tents might have posed some sort of threat to “hygiene” on campus. The health of political freedom was too trivial a worry to worry about. These men of order then assured us that their actions were “governed by practical, not philosophical considerations,” as if a primary devotion to means and techniques divorced from political value was reassuring.

The only values that could potentially trump public health (those hospitalized by the police assault stood as a perplexing reminder of the strange logic of “safety” governing the campus) were the values of public relations. Oddly, this might be the last public concern of our purportedly public universities. And since the police violence had been videotaped by those they bludgeoned, and since those images had spread instantly into social media networks and eventually into public consciousness, the leaders of the university who had unleashed the violence at the university now confronted their very worst fears: a public relations disaster. In an effort to address this crisis (of image, not deed), the Chancellor of the university sent out a hastily taped audio announcement to explain that he “took full responsibility” for the situation. He also wished everyone a “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Some Berkeley faculty attempted to close the gap between image and deed and actually hold the leaders of the campus responsible. Originally, the faculty motion included a call for a vote of “no confidence.” However, as the vote of the faculty drew closer, some worried that the resolution demanding actual responsibility went too far in actually demanding those responsible be held so. After all, if this was at heart a public relations problem, then couldn’t the resolution work at that level as well? To rally faculty votes, the no-confidence measure was watered down (this was described as a “clarification” but no student I spoke with saw it as anything but dilution). Gone was the proposition of no confidence; never even present was a call for resignation. In fact, the clarification provided by the removal of the no-confidence clause was to say clearly that no one should think that this was a call for resignation.

The extraordinary Senate meeting and debate demonstrated that the only reasonable positions (that is, they made internal sense and carried a certain political integrity about them) were at the extremes; efforts to split the difference were comical and absurd, and none were more comical and more absurd than the efforts of the Chancellor. After hearing the modified resolutions, the Chancellor addressed the crowd. His voice cracked as his story veered off into a narration of his global wandering during this most recent outburst of police violence on campus (he was traveling in Asia); he wanted to highlight his achievements on this Asia trip as if this might in some bizarre way alter calculations of accountability and justice; in the midst of this, his voice cracked again as if he was suddenly waking from an administrative haze and realizing that no one in the 500+ audience cared at all, not one bit, not at this moment, about his imagined successes on this trip. He then switched into a tale of bungled communications between campus leaders: a missed voicemail here, a faulty info relay there. It was now clear: he would take “full responsibility” by insisting that he was not responsible. This echoed the very logic of the Senate meeting, to hold leaders responsible for the violence they unleashed without really holding them responsible. Yoked together, this joint flight from reality and responsibility was described as the “campus community coming together” to productively solve its problems.

The Chancellor also informed the Senate that the police had used batons to bruise bodies and break bones in a display of “restraint”: batons were used because the administration had ordered the police to not use tear gas and pepper spray on the non-violent protestors. The tone and the logic said in effect: have you not stopped to consider and give thanks for the violence we didn’t unleash? For the beatings you didn’t receive? At the heart of the police state rests an odd form of paternalistic charity and a genuine feeling of hurt by those on top for the lack of full gratitude that seems to never flow from those on the bottom.

The Vice Chancellor of the Berkeley campus spoke next.  He was calm, matter-of-fact, and again, entirely reasonable from a certain point of view, and made some propositions to “improve” policing on campus. With a sense of pride, as if he himself had stumbled on this bit of ingenuity, he suggested that in the future, police raids could be conducted in the middle of the night, so that there would be fewer crowds around. It was unclear if he was referencing the number of potential observers to the police violence or the number of protestors who would be henceforth subjected to it or if it was some combination of the two. Regardless, he had solved the riddle. We would, of course, have to have a “serious conversation” as a “community” about whether we were prepared to accept such hard-reasoned facts, but there it was. He also, in passing, offered a three-month committee to study the underlying socio-economic inequalities that sparked the protest; it was left blank what would happen if the social structures persisted into, say, month four and beyond. But with the doubled-down commitment to the logic of the garrison state on campus, why bother with such worries? And for those with such worries: again, just remember all the beating you aren’t receiving.

After speaking, the chancellors exited the auditorium and the faculty at last debated. Freed from the consequences of a deed—a demand for a resignation or an unadulterated and unequivocal statement of no confidence—the faculty as a whole seemed to, at last, “find its voice.” But in listening to the condemnations flowing from faculty member after faculty member, one was simply struck by the chasm that had opened on campus between fact and fiction, truth and lies, honesty and deceit, deeds and words. And one was struck with sadness as good people with the best of intentions simply performed the very crisis they had imagined that they had gathered together to solve. It was clear by the end of the meeting that the chancellors were unfit to lead the university. The faculty had made the case and it was devastatingly persuasive. They voted by a margin of 10-to-1 to condemn the administration and the police violence and to insist on the cessation of the “excessive use of force.” Yet, all the leaders remained in place: the chancellor, the vice chancellor, and the chief of campus police.

The event was in some sense a microcosm of the severed relationship between power and responsibility in the society at large. It offered a clear example of why the Occupy Movement was in revolt against something more than “excess” and had undertaken the Herculean task of taking on the rot at the core.

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