I feel like I’ve become accustomed to stomaching hypocrisy. Contemporary politics is rife with it. It rarely shocks. Even when I am outraged by hypocrisy, my friends seem busy being outraged by a different hypocrisy, so we can’t get together and talk about it. I can’t remember exactly when this happened. I remember shocked at hypocrisy early in undergrad. I guess it is a gradual process.
By now many will have seen the footage of students from University of California, Davis being pepper sprayed by the campus policeman. It seems to be everywhere. It’s understandable, there is something brazen in the casual disdain with which he dowses the line of seated students. There was also the momentary raised arm to the crowd, like a gymnast about to commence their floor routine, it seemed a performative gesture to either his colleagues, the crowd or the perhaps inevitable global audience.
This student protest at the UC Davis campus was a protest in response to the hypocrisy I speak of and I can understand their resolute outrage. This protest was organised in response to a call for solidarity following the police violence on the UC Berkeley campus a week earlier. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgenau ordered police to break up a peaceful rally against increases in tuition fees. Unsurprisingly in the course of breaking up the protest police used batons against students resulting in injuries that included broken ribs.
UC Berkeley is a campus that has a long tradition of student activism dating back to the 1960s. A key moment was in 1969 when, akin to the contemporary occupy movement, students created a community park on campus to campaign for free speech on campus. Then California Governor Ronald Reagan ordered the National Guard onto the campus resulting in widespread injuries and the death of a student.
The actions ordered on both of the UC campuses fit very well within what is becoming a continued pattern of extremely disingenuous disavowals of the willingness to use violence against non-violent protesters in the name of health safety. The argument that violent policeman are ‘bad apples’ doesn’t hold water. Take the UC Davis footage. Yes, it was one officer that used pepper spray against the students but police forces are designed around a strict system of hierarchy and accountability. Senior officers are accountable for the actions of those they are in charge of and other officers have a duty to ensure fellow officers uphold the law. Recall the performative gesture; his intent was clear and no officer stepped forward to prevent students being pepper sprayed or assist injured students.
The responsibility for these actions can’t be disavowed. A junior faculty member has put this in the strongest possible terms in an open letter to the UC Davis Chancellor, Linda Katehi, calling for her resignation.
Through all this though, the deepest hypocrisy lies in the fact that political UC Berkeley as an institution claims to pride itself on this tradition of campus activism. Its website even has a page dedicated to this tradition. Of all the things that should not become hollowed out into a cynical public relations exercise, it is the idealism of young students.