“May I offer you one of these to protest torture in your own country?” said writer Cecile Pineda, as she proffered orange ribbons to each visitor walking up the ramp from Gayley Road towards the Greek Theatre.
The orange clad Pineda was part of a small protest organized by the group World Can’t Wait! outside the May 13, 2011 Commencement ceremonies for Berkeley Law ( formerly Boalt School of Law) at UC Berkeley.
Some protestors offered ribbons, others carried signs or banners, and one dressed in an orange jumpsuit, chains, and a hood to symbolize prisoners tortured at Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the far flung network of United States outposts and interventions in the world over the past decade.
The focus of this protest was Professor John Yoo, a member of the faculty at the School of Law who is regarded as a prime architect of legal policies created under the Bush Administration to justify torture.
Some took the ribbons from Pineda with thanks; a few rushed by then turned back to get one. “Sure, we do agree”, said one man. Others looked confused or ignored her. “It’s a sunny day and we don’t think much on sunny days”, she said.
She said she had picketed with both World Can’t Wait and Code Pink. “Protestors have come more and more unsmiling. I think that’s a barometer of what’s happening in a culture and a society.”
“People really need to have suffered to understand what torture is.”
The response to the protest was “really good”, said David Sylvester, another protester who studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. “We’ve had a much better response this year than last year.”
“The main issue is to get the torture into people’s psyche”, Sylvester said. In addition to focusing on John Yoo, “we also protest (former Secretary of State) Condi Rice, because she’s another torture traitor.”
“This year many more people are protesting torture.” There’s “much more receptivity to the message”, Sylvester said.
This was the fourth protest at a Boalt graduation said Stephanie Tang, one of the lead organizers. “Every year a lot of the graduates understand the issue”, and many take orange ribbons, she said.
The protest focused on both entryways to the Greek Theatre and along the sidewalks approaching it. UC police watched the demonstrators.
“A lot of people are more aware. People are taking the ribbon this year as a sign they don’t support torture,” Tang said. “What is really needed to stop the torture is a massive refusal and resistance from the people of this country.”
“Dean Edley has never worn an orange ribbon”, she said “He refused it again this year.”
In 2009 the Dean of the law school, Christopher Edley, Jr. wrote a perspective on the Yoo controversy which can still be found on the Law School website.
The School of Law faculty shouldn’t support Yoo, Tang argued. But Rice and Yoo were “allowed back into academia as if they don’t have blood on their hands.”
“John Yoo is no role model, he’s a war criminal.”
The group has “confronted him in public at lectures and classes”, Tang said. “It’s horrendous that the faculty and administration treat this as lightly as they do.”
“There are no issues of academic freedom here”, she argued.
“The University and Boalt are complicit in torture by failing to maintain academic freedom as the pursuit of truth, not as a means to justify political goals”, one of the pieces of literature distributed by the group read.
“Who in any leadership position at Boalt is asking questions, and demanding a debate on Yoo, his theories and his suitability as a professional, ethical, or moral role model for students? Without this, claims of academic ‘freedom’ are a sham. Repressive regimes always look ‘free’—until you ask real questions.”
“What a bizarre situation we face: UC is paying an advocate/designer of illegal government action (rendition, aggressive war, torture) teaching constitutional law and ethics to the next generation of lawyers and judges,” the flyer continued.