A Violent Shift

Protesters attack home of Berkeley chancellor, escalating tensions and setting off debate on tactics.
December 14, 2009

The protests over budget cuts to higher education in California have repeatedly featured civil disobedience in recent weeks, with numerous building takeovers and sit-ins. But the protests took a more violent turn Friday night with an attack on the home of the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

Dozens of protesters -- apparently a mix of students and non-students -- rushed the home, smashed planters, and threw various objects, some of them aflame, at windows in the home.

Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor, issued a statement in which he said: "These are criminals, not activists. The attack at our home was extraordinarily frightening and violent. My wife and I genuinely feared for our lives. The people involved in this action will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I want to emphasize that they represent an extreme minority of our students."

Mark G. Yudof, president of the university, issued a statement Saturday saying that "the attack on Chancellor Birgeneau's residence late last night was appalling. The behavior as described went far beyond the boundaries of public dissent, and such lawlessness cannot be tolerated. I have spoken with the chancellor to express my support. The matter is now appropriately in the hands of law enforcement authorities."

Also condemning the attack was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called Birgeneau to offer support and who linked the attack on the chancellor's home to terrorism. "California will not tolerate any type of terrorism against any leaders including educators," Schwarzenegger said. "The attack on Chancellor Birgeneau’s home is a criminal act and those who participated will be prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law. Debate is the foundation of democracy and I encourage protesters to find peaceful and productive ways to express their opinions."

Authorities arrested eight people, including two identified as Berkeley students, and charged them with rioting, threatening an education official, attempted burglary, attempted arson of an occupied building, felony vandalism, and assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer. Many others who were present ran away.

The arrested students could not be reached, but Occupy California, a blog affiliated with the protest movement, published an apparent defense of the attack on the chancellor's home. The statement noted arrests earlier Friday of participants at a peaceful protest (part of what is being called "Live Week") at Wheeler Hall, which Berkeley officials said needed to be broken up to avoid disruptions of academic operations.

"The chancellor, although not the sole contributor to the crisis we face now, was directly involved in the unjust arrests of Wheeler Hall in the morning and continues to threaten the futures of the stakeholders of the University of California, Berkeley," the statement said. "He is neither a mastermind nor a figurehead, but does stand as a powerful and influential individual that refuses to accept both the project that Live Week attempted to create and the fact that he shares a part of the blame, no matter who he can point his finger at.... As the events unrolled during the evening, it was clear that many are aware of the lack of faith the chancellor has for the students and many have become aware of the power that individuals have, due to promise that Live Week fulfilled, to create a space for people to come together."

As for the violence, the blog post said: "Although some may attempt to paint the evening as a night of petty violence, this event reveals a refusal to accept the university’s actions and the physically violent police repression in passivity. The property damage incurred may seem ruthlessly aberrant and scarring on a university already suffering budget woes, but the damage incurred by the silencing of stakeholders Friday morning exceeds beyond any value the university can place on some broken glass and ceramics. The University of California is a model public university that the world watches and the actions it takes reverberates to communities outside simply the current students, workers and faculty. The dignity and security of individuals through out California, and the world, is being crushed due to the decisions made here."

The arguments being offered to defend the attack on Birgenau's home are being questioned not only by University of California administrators, but by some who have been sympathetic to the protest movement, including acts of civil disobedience. Angus Johnston, who maintains the blog Student Activism and who has been sharply critical of university administrators, said that the attack Friday night did not represent a legitimate form of protest.

"First, throwing a planter at the window of someone’s home while there are people inside is not merely an act of vandalism. It is an act of assault. The people who attempted to break the chancellor’s windows could not have known that the glass would hold, and they could not have known whether there was someone on the other side of the glass. Attempting to smash the windows of someone’s home is not just 'property damage.' It is not just 'scarring on a university.' It is a physical attack on the people inside that home," Johnston wrote.

He continued: "Second, the question of whether the chancellor 'shares a part of the blame' for the arrests at Wheeler or the university’s budget crisis is not the issue here. He obviously does. The question is whether attacking a person’s home with him and his family inside it is an appropriate response to those misdeeds. Again, this was not just a matter of some spray-paint or some broken ceramics, this was an attempt to smash windows -- and allegedly an attempt to start fires. The chancellor said this morning that he and his wife feared for their personal safety when their home was attacked last night. I believe him. He had reason to fear. People with torches were massed outside his home, smashing things against it, trying to break in. That’s not 'some broken glass and ceramics.' That’s a violent mob, and it's an outrage."

The attack on the Berkeley chancellor's home comes amid a wave of protests at California's public colleges not only over budget cuts dictated by a collapsing state budget, but very much directed at college administrators, who are being accused of not doing enough to minimize the cuts or to reallocate resources to minimize their impact.

Higher education leaders have said that they agree that the budget cuts are painful, but have -- without much success -- encouraged protesting students to focus their anger on state leaders in the capitol of Sacramento, not on administration buildings. Anger has grown as many faculty members and students have criticized the way UC administrators have responded to protests, in some cases with actions that have been viewed as involving excessive force and in other cases in ways that have suggested a lack of tolerance for dissent.

Adding to the controversy have been debates over statements from university leaders that have been widely viewed as insensitive and spending (most notably on athletics at Berkeley) that have frustrated many employees facing furloughs and students facing tuition increases. While these developments have led to many protests and considerable criticism, and much of it has been caustic, it hasn't been violent.

Measuring the degree of student support for the protest movement generally, and for the attack Friday, is difficult. While Berkeley is famous for student activists, some of the activism (as did the arrests Friday night) involves more non-students than students. And despite Berkeley's reputation, and the frustrations many students there feel, many students are as focused on such matters as exams, getting jobs or applying to graduate school as are students on other campuses.

The discussion board of The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at Berkeley, suggested that some are sympathetic toward the attack Friday night, but that many others are not. One commenter suggested that the incident may have produced an important result. "For months, the UC administration has sought to deflect our attention to Sacramento. They've even called for a mass march (though, curiously, haven't demonstrated any willingness to actually show leadership on such a strategy)," the commenter wrote. "Now, perhaps 12 students have managed to capture the attention of the governor ... on a Saturday no less. Did the governor issue any statement when thousands marched non-violently? Or even occupied buildings (non-violently)? Those who refuse to engage peaceful protesters make violent protest inevitable."

Another commenter expressed support for the protest movement generally, and while criticizing the attack on the chancellor's house, suggested that most of those present weren't involved: "It wasn't a mob. Most were just watching 12 or so people and were shocked to see them go overboard. What sucks is that some of the people arrested didn't actually do anything, they were caught up by the swarming cops and were standing in the crowd.... Most students don't support the idiocy of those that threw garbage at the Chancellors mansion. Most students support the student movement. Don't be an idiot and confuse the two groups. The movement is not made up of radicals."

Yet another questioned not only the attack on the chancellor's home, but the sit-ins and other events that have disrupted some activities. "This is what happens when protests and movements and solidarity frauds are not led by competent, intelligent, strategic thinking individuals. The groups get hijacked by equally stupid, but more personally powerful, criminals. The focus was wrong from the start," the commenter said. "The organizers chose to piss in our own bathwater, rather than go to the state which caused the cutbacks (and this year's financial crisis) by lopping off 813 million dollars in state support for UC. Not only did this excessive misdirected focus not accomplish anything, it alienated students and destroyed any hope of a united response that could have worked....

"Stop attacking campus facilities. Stop attacking campus events. Stop attacking Cal, and start attacking the problem at its source: Sacramento and the people who run the state. Just stop. You are taking us backwards. Just stop."


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