UC Berkeley and the politics of punishment


You’ve got to hand it to Robert “Grinnin’ Bobby” Birgeneau.

The UC Berkeley chancellor who once boasted of his days as a civil rights activist in the Deep South has proven himself time and again a foe of his latter-day counterparts.

His UC Police Department has trained with Israeli border police and the Bahrain military, two outfits who really know how to beat down civil disobedience, and they’re up to date on all the skills of creative “nudging.”

But Bobby B has done them one better, using the judicial process to inflict another form of punishment, even while eventually dropping charges against those his Israeli- and Bahraini-trained troops have brutally busted.

When campus cops swooped down on Occupy Cal 9 November, they arrested a dozen students and one faculty member on a laundry list of charges.

Having an arrest record in the midst of a depression is in itself a serious handicap to job-seekers, and those arrests remain on the record, regardless of the outcome of the judicial process.

So call that the first punishment.

Grinnin' Bobby Birgeneau

But Birgenau has taken the process one fiendish step further.

Getting arrested is an onerous process; involving handcuffs, sometimes a strip search, a holding cell and — if you can’t make bail — the prospect of longer incarceration.

And then there’s the lawyer. Anyone who gets arrested needs a lawyer, and lawyers don’t come cheap.

The lawyer’s meter is running for each court appearance, including her travel time to and from the court, and during the drafting of each and every motion or memorandum of points and authorities and whatever other paperwork needs doing — along with the research time to prepare it.

It all adds up, and the bill’s still there to be paid even if they’re eventually found not guilty.

And students being students, they may have to borrow to pay the bills, adding one more increment to their ever-growing mountain of student loan debt.

So call being arrested the first punishment and the legal bills the second.

And here’s where Birgenau’s strategy gets really fiendish.

In addition to the arrests, Birgeneau issued orders barring the arrested from campus, except for attendance at classes and other official business. They couldn’t set foot on campus to grab a soda with friends or other normal activities that are part of student life on campus.

Now it gets really cute.

Grinnin’ Bob has added a whole new layer to the game, one we’ll call Prosecutus Interruptus.

See, over the past five months he’s been lifting the stay-aways, one student here, another two there, and so on. And lately he’s been doing the same thing with the criminal charges, dropping a couple here, another there.

Now most of both the stay-aways and the criminal charges have been dismissed. After, of course, several of those costly court hearings.

The one prominent case that remains is that of Professor Celeste Langan, the faculty member who was famously grabbed by the hair and thrown to the ground, as shown starting at about 14 seconds in this video of the 9 November arrests:

One could make a real case that on the Berkeley campus, faculty who take part in protests earn the special scorn of administrators.

So we’re not suprised to learn that Langan may turn out to be the last defendant to have her charges dismissed.

Shannon Najmabadi reported for the Daily Californian Friday:

UC Berkeley associate English professor Celeste Langan — whose trial is scheduled for May 4 — said that she was told by her attorney that her charges would also be dropped at her hearing in May.

“While it’s great to know that we will not have to go to trial, in my case it’s almost frustrating, as I won’t have (the) opportunity to challenge the police reports of two Alameda County Sheriff’s officers who claimed that I pushed one of them with both hands in the chest – a complete and utter fabrication,” Langan said in an email.

Read the rest.

While the charges may vanish, the arrest records and the legal bills don’t.

But maybe that’s the real education, a first-hand glimpse of the perils of challenging entrenched power?

So it is fitting that we close with an excerpt from a story about the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement we wrote for the Berkeley Daily Planet issue of 12 October 2004:

After introductory remarks by ASUC President Misha Leybovich, Birgeneau recounted the events after his graduation from Yale in 1964—where he’d done volunteer work in inner-city New Haven.

Birgeneau and his spouse headed to the deep South as a volunteer in the civil rights movement, where they shared a dwelling with two FSM leaders.

“I had only been out of Canada for two years, and it was an extraordinarily valuable experience,” he said.

Birgeneau’s address did draw resounding boos with the mention of the former Secretary of State who was the architect of Preside nt Richard Nixon’s Southeast Asian war strategy.

“I had dinner last week with Henry Kissinger and a senior official from Vietnam,” he said. The Vietnamese official “said we would not have had peace and unity in Vietnam if not for” the antiwar movement in the United States.

Read the rest.

One response to “UC Berkeley and the politics of punishment

  1. Pingback: America’s militarized police: Finally in the open | eats shoots 'n leaves

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