Monday, May 19, 2014

"Let's have a reasonable discussion of violence done against your people."

Originally, I saw the link on digg. The link is presented as a commencement speaker telling the students they are arrogant and immature. There are many reasons why an older person should tell a younger group of people they are arrogant and immature, and some of those reasons are correct. This is not one of those occasions. Follow the story here

Instead, the speaker, former president of Princeton William Bowen, chastises the entire student body for the sins of a smaller group within the body—already you must pay attention to the logic of inclusion at work—where those sins are the students at Haverford College organizing to protest the invitation to Robert Birgenau, chancellor of UC Berkeley during the various protests that occurred there. You can see details of those events at these links: 1, 2, 3. [Some other thoughts on that last link at the end]

 Let me cite the most important part for the main article:

"I am disappointed that those who wanted to criticize Birgeneau's handling of events at Berkeley chose to send him such an intemperate list of "demands," said Bowen, who led Princeton from 1972 to 1988 and last year received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. "In my view, they should have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion, not to come, tail between his legs, to respond to an indictment that a self-chosen jury had reached without hearing counter-arguments."

Why should the students have encouraged him to come and engage in a genuine discussion? He might have given reasons for this, but there's no indication in this article he did. Notice the language: he is responding to an indictment; no counter-arguments have been given.

But what were the student protests about? Why were the students protesting?
Why did the protests reach the point where the unarmed, non-violent but immovable students had the state violence turned against them, to such an extent that even Birgeneau "said videos of the protests were disturbing" [link 3]? Presumably, he didn't find them disturbing that so many students were not complying with police orders—some people find it disturbing when others resist authority or fail to conform to the rules—he found it disturbing because of the police violence directed against the students, violence the Christian Science Monitor article [link 3] describes as the police having "jabbed the students." Look at link 2, and watch the Youtube video. Those aren't jabs. They are forward strikes using the weight of an officer's body, and some of those people receiving those strikes are clearly not martial artists or people used to fighting. A baton used in that way with that amount of force applied at a much smaller surface area will cause serious damage to internal organs. It's not a jabbing. It's potentially lethal to unexposed, unprepared young college students. The point of moving a mass of people is to use psychological threat. The officers in the Youtube video are not using psychological threat to gain compliance. They are assaulting non-violent, unarmed people.

So, in that situation, are those students being invited to a genuine discussion, where grievances are aired in a respectful manner, where the policies and procedures of the University are held to counter-arguments challenging its presuppositions, values, and intentions? Are those the kind of people acting in a way as though they have a choice?

If the oppressive powers demonstrate they are unwilling and cannot simply be bothered to engage in respectful, genuine discussion—this means, they do not issue a press statement clearly designed to avoid legal and social entanglements but definitively demonstrating their political authority to fabricate openly the terms of the discussion, but instead, honestly discuss their fears, their debts, their hopes, their vulnerabilities as an institution dependent upon larger political forces much more powerful than students and students' families—and instead solve their incapability of listening and having discussions with students by using violent and suppressive police force, then the first acts of incivility were done by them, not the students at another higher learning institution who show their solidarity to others.

There is nothing arrogant about acknowledging that someone who has chosen the way of the fist must want to operate and be held to the standards of the way of the fist. Like the man said, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  If Birgeneau had wanted genuine discussion, then his should have been a life spent in genuine discussion. The violence on the campus—and suppression of dissent through bureaucratic means is definitely violence—should never have gotten to that point where those individual officers became tempted by the color of law to commit violence against others. I know the feeling inside. I know the headspace. I know the fear. I know how you can turn off a switch in your mind and hurt another person more easily when you wear a badge. I know that the cover of that color permits a wide range of physically violent things, even though not all of them match the ethos of someone who wishes, in the other parts of one's life, to love one another. Donning that gear, holding that baton, facing down the beast of irrational mass and privilege dissatisfied with what it has, I know how officers are tempted to protect themselves first. You have to understand. Not all cops are pigs. A great many of them are simply weak. Birgeneau, if he is at all someone genuine and interested in genuine lives with genuine acts done alongside genuine people, had many opportunities to seek this out and rein in the officers, encourage the students, and stand proud. But, Birgeneau is as much a cop as those cops on the line are.

We are all in various ways as torn in our interests as those cops and those students. There isn't genuine discussion taking place because it means acknowledging how we are not in control anymore.

Which is why Bowen is wrong to blame the students for their arrogance and their immaturity. They are arrogant, because the students thought they had the freedom to demand. Students, in Bowen's eyes, are not free to make demands of University administration, especially guests. They must know their place. They must be polite and respectful, even if the people are, themselves, pawns and tools in a depersonalized machine exploiting those students. Slavery works by saying the violence against the slaves is just because the slaves are not properly appreciating what the masters are doing. Genuine discussion can only happen under situations of mutual trust. Birgeneau does not trust the students. Bowen does not trust the students. And since they are doing this unto the students, then we are right to conclude this is how they wish we do unto them. Treat them wish suspicion, accusation, prejudice, and judgment.

Some other thoughts

As for something in link 3, there's this:

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau launched an investigation into allegations that campus police used excessive force. He said videos of the protests were disturbing, and he plans to grant amnesty to all students who were arrested and cited for attempting to block police from removing the tents.

How does Birgeneau plan to "grant amnesty" to the students? A campus police department is a law enforcement body usually created under state law, having the same kind of rights and responsibilities as other municipal law enforcement organizations. Some campus police are also deputized by the sheriff, but set that part aside. Here's the question: can a mayor just declare that some group of people placed under arrest will be granted amnesty? Once the department arrests and charges people, those charges are then turned over to the court system. It is, in some ways, outside of the hands of the department. An officer might decline to be a witness, and the state will have no case. The prosecutor might decline to prosecute, but that's the prosecutor's decision. If we learn that a mayor intervened and had cases dropped, will we think that's a case of justice, even if we do think the cases needed to be dropped?

The point here is this. Any mercy shown by the mayor is just risking turning the mayor into a tyrant, since tyranny has less to do with suppressing and oppressing groups of people and much more to do with changing the universal applicability of law into particular applications. Buy off the mayor, or the judge, or the prosecutor, and the case gets dropped. Even if you are innocent, this is a perversion of justice. It will be a perversion of justice even if the mayor, judge, or prosecutor have a change of heart and the arrest and trial are motivated from false principles. This is because it should be a normal function of law to arrive at the conclusion of null results—to further reinforce how legal mechanisms are machines liable to failure internally, requiring our constant participation to notice in what ways they are not working. If we depend upon a powerful individual to intervene in the workings of the machine, and especially when we call this grace or mercy, then not only do we come to believe the machine is just when it succeeds in punishing someone it finds guilty, believing the machine worked exactly in the mode of discovering justice, but we also come to believe the powerful people are necessary for the machine's own smooth operations to avoid breakdowns or failures.

Now, what the hell does a chancellor have to do with justice and legal machinery? Is his an elected position in law? Is his an appointed position? The police department that must obey his instructions to drop or annul the charges against those the department arrests is not an independent organization any longer. It is an instrument of his fallible will. And, if this kind of meddling in the operations of a law enforcement body is part of the standard operating procedure of the position of university chancellor, then we need to also ensure that hiring of chancellors also includes their thoughts on jurisprudence, enforcement of law, and the effective use of police powers to promote safety, free enterprise, and genuine discussions.

Thinking that he has the authority to grant amnesty to people arrested by law enforcement officers is Birgeneau's arrogance. He only has the power to change the policies, but once the legal system is involved, he cannot interfere in it without risking his own biases meddling with his own sense of what's right and what's wrong. That's the whole point behind why law works towards open exposure of bias, transparency, and responding to questioning: law is an attempt to codify genuine discussion as a means of discovering truth. If Birgeneau openly declares—all, of course, within the context of his being disturbed by what he sees, and thus a patent display of his own transient solidarity with 'the people' as an act of magnanimity—that he can interfere with law, avoid genuine discussion in a court of law—where we can render public in what ways bureaucracy demeans and violently assaults us—and make decisions unilaterally about who is exonerated, then he is not saying that he agrees with the people or is even on their side.

He is saying that he is something else entirely, an individual capable of deciding politically who has a criminal record and who does not. That is not what common people are. That is not the live reality of those students at UC Berkeley, nor the students and professors at Haverford College.

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