UC Berkeley Embarrasses Its Alumnae One More Time

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday September 11, 2008 - 09:49:00 AM

It’s been an unpleasant few days around here. All weekend long, and for two days later the ominous drone of circling helicopters was heard at our house, as if we were in a war zone. University of California in its majesty was administering the coup de grace to the hapless romantics perched atop the skeleton of the lone redwood which temporarily survived the assault of the Monarch of the West. 

Neighbors called wondering if they’d missed some major catastrophe. The Planet heard from many readers vainly hoping we’d know what was going on and how to stop it. 

Friends who lived here during the culture wars of the 1960s say this was nothing. Then it was troops and tear gas. Now the ugly face the University of California presents to the world is just rent-a-cops, chain-saws, chain-link fences and feeling-your-pain flackery. But to mix a couple of metaphors now floating through the zeitgeist, you can put lipstick on a pit bull, but it’s still a pit bull. 

Everywhere we went, we heard people mourning the death of the old oaks, even at Shotgun’s Ubu for President show.  

The characters in the play were all too familiar to Berkeleyans.  

There was a cocky king, sure that he could do no wrong. See Monarch of the West, above.  

There was a peace-and-love sweetie, uncomfortably reminiscent of the appealing naiveté of protesters past and present who believed that throwing their bodies on the machine would produce anything but a pile of chopped liver at the end of the encounter. 

A pair of self-satisfied vulgarians who farted their way through the afternoon onstage looked a lot like the rude and noisy football fans who park on our block on Saturdays in the fall. 

It should have been a funny show, but the woman sitting next to us said “I just can’t laugh, I keep thinking about the trees.” 

The helicopters so many complained about were deployed by the news media—the university made do with cherry-pickers. The Planet opted not to use our corporate helicopter out of consideration for the people of Berkeley, relying instead on cell phone reports from our ace reporter on the scene, posted on the web as they came in. 

I watched the whole drama on Tuesday on my computer at my desk at home, streamed live by Channel 7. Though ABC’s e-mailers complained about the helicopter noise, the coverage was spectacular, an enthralling yet horrifying sight for someone like me who suffers from vicarious acrophobia (fear of watching other people high-up). I had to admire the derring-do of the last young men in their tiny basket atop the tree at the end, though I hoped they’d come down before they fell to certain death.  

How did students react? Jane Brody in Tuesday’s Times reported studies linking student alcohol abuse to athletics: “Although Greek houses, which have the highest rates of binge drinking, are infamous for a free-flowing alcohol culture, studies have found that student athletes and sports fans are also among the heaviest drinkers, often gathering to drink to oblivion after an athletic event.”  

A woman who lives just south of the campus confirms this theory. Last weekend the student parties in her neighborhood were especially loud and especially drunken, which she attributes to overheard enthusiasm among sports fans about the defeat of the oaks protesters coupled with a football triumph. A neighbor found a sleeping student drunk on her front porch at 7 a.m. on Sunday. 

Thus ends another chapter on the road to ignominy of my alma mater. I know, I know, as a former governor once said, seen one tree, ya’ve seen ‘em all. Just a little patch of landscaping gone from a once-lovely campus now nearly covered by concrete. Nothing more than 200 years old, at the outside, and what’s 200 years to High Performance Student Athletes and their devotees? 

Not that UC’s hands have ever been clean. People’s Park was worse. The recent contract selling off a big chunk of UC’s research effort to British Petroleum is even more shameful than cutting down one oak grove, though less dramatic. 

Old-timers remember that when Memorial Stadium was built, after World War I, there were warnings that it was smack dab on top of the Hayward Fault, but the university chose to ignore them. Conservationists and nature lovers also complained then that the location did significant damage to what had been one of the most beautiful parts of the Berkeley hills. The name itself is an early instance of the still-current practice of wrapping a bad idea in the flag of patriotism to make it sell.  

There’s a lot more to come. The oak grove was just the canary in the coal mine. The next stage of UC’s expansion plan is to destroy much more of Strawberry Canyon in order to feed the BP maw. Football’s fun, but corporate research is serious money.  

For the patriotic twist, how about the energy crisis? End our dependence on foreign oil! (The British aren’t really foreigners now, are they?) 

Non-liberal-arts majors took offense at my previous use of a German word, liebensraum, to describe the university’s rapacious desire for territorial expansion, just because Hitler had previously used it. But my excellent education at what we used to call Cal taught me another fine word for the school’s behavior: hubris. Wikipedia’s definition nails it: “Hubris ...is a term used in modern English to indicate overweening pride, self-confidence, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution. In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions which, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim, and frequently the perpetrator as well. It was most evident in the public and private actions of the powerful and rich.”  

The worst recent example of powerful, rich UC Berkeley’s hubris hasn’t gotten enough attention in the MSM. That’s the raid on the Long Haul office by UC’s much-too-powerful police force, when all the computers on the premises were seized by UC cops. But while I was watching Channel 7 on Tuesday I happened on an excellent story (http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local&id=6378316) about the Long Haul raid by reporter Heather Ishimaru. The station obtained the court document which purported to authorize the search, a warrant signed by a judge reciting the supposed probable cause that evidence of crime would be found. ABC7 legal consultant Dean Johnson says on camera that based on his reading of the document, he was shocked that the judge granted a search warrant.  

“The heart of this affidavit is just sheer speculation,” Johnson says. 

E-mails threatening UC animal researchers had been traced to the bank of public access computers provided free as Long Haul’s Infoshop, but anyone can come in and use those computers—no records are kept. There’s no excuse for raiding the whole building, where many groups have offices, and seizing every last computer and hard drive on the premises. As one of our letter writers pointed out, would they seize all the computers in all of UC’s libraries if someone wrote a scary e-mail on one of them? 

The researchers are certainly justified in being afraid of some on the crazy fringe of the animal rights movement. My niece’s best friend in her Santa Cruz preschool lives in a house that they firebombed—inexcusable, especially when kids are involved.  

But there’s no reason to violate the civil rights of everyone in and around Long Haul. When ABC’s legal eagle points out that the affidavit supported the search warrant should have stated “probable cause,” what that means is that the judge should have required UC’s police to explain why they believed taking possession of the public terminals would tell anyone anything about who sent the threatening message. Anyone familiar with the way Long Haul operates its computer room would know that’s just not possible. 

As compared to the Berkeley police, who had no part in the action, UC’s police look, once again, like careless cowboys, poorly trained and famously insensitive to civil liberties. There’s no reason that law-abiding citizens of Berkeley who have nothing to do with the university should be subjected to random raids by UC’s minions, just because we happen to live in their company town.  

On Sept. 11, we all have reason to remember that real threats can too easily be distorted by unscrupulous government agencies to become excuses for seizing unwarranted power. If Long Haul isn’t safe, we’re all at risk.