Yesterday, I was beaten, arrested, and jailed for participating in an act of civil disobedience against the privatization of education and criminalization of dissent in California.
I’ve spent the last day trying to process what happened, and writing this is an attempt to get it out of my mind and on to paper (having spent last night on a cement floor, I could use some mental solace). There’s nothing exceptional about my experience, and yet, even knowing that, I write this grappling with a feeling of voicelessness and powerlessness that I have never before experienced. I know that, once you start talking about “police brutality” and “police states”, you enter into a group of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists that most Americans dismiss out of hand. I can’t control that portrayal, but for whatever reason, I need to talk about what happened, even if I can’t figure out why it has affected me so much.
We set up “Occupy Cal” in an attempt to open up our university to groups that had been excluded from it, to create a safe space to debate and discuss the future of public education, and to exercise our first amendment right to free assembly. We all knew that what we were doing was in violation of university policy—which views encampments as, somehow, on par with graffiti and building occupations insofar as they disrupt classes and harm university property—and that in doing so we risked arrest. But, having passed a resolution explicitly declaring our encampment peaceful and non-violent, we expected those arrests to follow the rules of engagement that have defined civil disobedience since the Civil Rights era. Cal has had occupations before – protesting against apartheid, for example – and while the university didn’t like them, it ultimately tolerated them as a means of democratic dissent.
We were wrong to think the same would happen for us. Our encampment was torn down at 4:00 p.m., but we set up again. At 9:30 p.m., the police issued an order to disperse. We stayed, linking arms and chanting “Peaceful protest!” The police advanced up to the crowd and started stabbing and beating people with batons. Most of them were riot cops from other jurisdictions; a professor who has been here thirty years assures me that this level of militarization of police (there were officers with shotguns and rubber-bullet guns) is unprecedented. Although the labels “violent” and “non-violent” get bandied around to the extent that they have virtually lost any meaning in public discourse, I have never seen protesters remain so defiantly peaceful in the face of such brutality. Reasonable people can disagree about whether privatizing Cal is a good thing; no one should disagree that what this video shows is unconscionable. I trust you to make your own decisions about who here was “violent” and who was not.
I was in front, near the side of the encampment. A female officer walked up to me and started stabbing me in the ribs with her baton as I screamed at her that I was peaceful and not resisting her in any way. She ordered me to back up. This was impossible since there were lines of people behind me, and, perceiving me as refusing to comply with her orders, she continued stabbing me. I buckled over, letting go of the people around me, because at this point I realized that only by being arrested would the beating stop. I threw my hands up into peace signs and shouted that I wanted to be arrested non-violently. I was not afforded that option. I was dragged through the officers despite my attempts to comply with the officers out of my own volition. I put my hands behind my back, but they threw me to the ground anyway. I turned to ask what the charges were and an officer punched me back to the ground. (If you think I’m pulling this out of my ass, watch this video at 1:40)
They cuffed me and dragged me into Sproul Hall, where they were holding around thirty of us. An officer came and asked me my name, and I told it to her. She then started firing off questions, and I politely told her that before I did that, I wanted to know my rights at this point in the process and when I would be able to speak to a lawyer. She responded, “You have no rights”, to which I responded “That’s impossible.” In one of many disturbing moments of the night, she informed me that I was wrong – and wrote me down as a non-cooperative arrestee. That simple request will earn me extra harsh treatment in the student disciplinary process, she assured me. Throughout the night, we were referred to as “bodies” not “people.” I was never Mirandized.
In a sense, at this point, the worst was over. The thirty of us supported one another, comforted one another, and inspired one another. We were driven to a county jail in Oakland, where they booked us—threatening that because our crimes were “violent” we could not be released until an Arraignment on Monday. In a holding cell that reeked of urine, we swapped stories, sang songs ranging from Buffalo Springfield to the Backstreet Boys, and shared a sense of camaraderie that could never be imagined in another setting. If we were afraid, we weren’t showing it: indeed, I would love to have had the defiant moral clarity of some of my eighteen-year-old comrades.
In the end, the entire process was a sham. I called my parents collect at 3 a.m. ($4.85 a minute—just to screw the poor a little bit more) telling them they needed to put together $20,000 in bail. And then, right afterward, a kind officer told me that they were sure that our charges of “resisting arrest” and “participating in a riot” had no chance in court, and so they were going to cite and release us. They took their sweet time in getting us out, but when we were again free, some of our union brothers and sisters were waiting for us with food, hugs, and their own first arrest stories. It’s strange to have experienced such wild oscillation between human decency and human cruelty, to interact both with officers who were thoughtful and considerate and those who were mindlessly violent.
On the grand spectrum of police encounters, I’ve gotten off easy. My injuries are confined to a cracked rib and bruised psyche. I am an enormously privileged person in that I can get arrested and know that it will not ruin my life or manifestly affect my academic career. I have received solidarity and comfort from friends all over the country and professors in the department I barely know. I have not for one moment doubted that my actions were in the right, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of; this is a source of strength that holds me together. And yet I have spent all day on the verge of crying.
I feel profoundly disempowered by what happened yesterday, in a way that has only become apparent once I left the solidarity of my fellow arrestees. I feel violated because I no longer am safe in my own body, knowing that I can be stabbed and manhandled and the individuals responsible will face no consequences. I feel humiliated because some of the people I have talked to seem to think that what happened last night demands no response, which suggests the worthlessness of my suffering and my cause. I feel small because I see myself arrayed against the implacable forces of an administration bent on spinning my actions into the framework of violent, radicals seeking to disrupt life for good, law-abiding students. I feel stupid because many of the illusions I grew up with about the rules of engagement in our political system are crumbling before me, leaving me no avenue through which to channel my anger about what has happened to me.
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I’d rather end on a practical note. I hope anyone reading this will consider writing Chancellor Birgeneau, who ordered the attacks, to tell him that you—as a citizen of Berkeley / California / Earth—do not approve. We always chant “The whole world is watching” when police start attacking us. It’d be nice to know that it’s true.