Public Comment

Occupying: the UC Experience

By Steve Martinot
Friday November 11, 2011 - 09:31:00 PM

After a day of demonstrations (Nov. 9) to protest increasing tuitions at a state funded university, to protest cuts in staff and curriculum in an era of horrendously large administrative salaries and bonuses, though not yet calling for a return of the university to an educational rather than career focus, students at UC Berkeley decided to "Occupy" the campus. They set up a few tents on Sproul Plaza, as occupiers had been setting up such encampments all over the country. 

The UC police attacked the small encampment, tore down the tents, used their truncheons on anyone who got in the way, and arrested a few students. One woman, in the face of the vicious force the police exhibited, held out her hands to be handcuffed, and said "arrest me." She was charged with "resisting arrest." She wasn't the only one. 

That evening, more students gathered on Sproul Plaza, with more tents. They set them up, and surrounded them with their bodies. There were some 300 people there. The university had said it would come and talk with the students. That is, dialogue with them. When the administration representatives showed up, they presented their conditions and left. They said, you can be here all you like, but we won't allow tents or sleeping bags. Then they turned and left. 

The students had tents and sleeping bags, and decided to defend them. The police attacked later that night, and beat anyone in their way as they waded through the bodies to get to those tents and sleeping bags, and tear them out of the world. The students simply placed their bodies in the way of the police assault, in defense of the tents. They did not counterattack. There was no assault against the police. They simply tried to be a barrier between the police and the tents. It is so easy to say, and so difficult to think about. Many were badly hurt. One student ended up in the IC unit in the hospital. 

The next evening (Nov. 10), the students had a General Assembly meeting to decide what to do. One proposal was that they set up the tents on the sidewalk outside the university. A university cop (a number were close by listening) then contacted one of the facilitators and told her that if the students set up tents on the sidewalk outside campus, they would be treated the same as they had been on Sproul Plaza. 

From that moment on, the basic premise of the discussion was, "if we set up tents, we will be beaten." 

That is, it wasn't, "if we do this, we will be breaking the law." It wasn't, "if we do that we will get a ticket." It wasn't, "if we do that, we will be indicted for insurrection." All those niceties of judicial procedure, in which an action, such as setting up a tent, is not a crime until it is proven that it violated the law โ€“ something which, in common parlance goes, "a person is innocent until proven guilty" โ€“ had been dispensed with. 

To make this clear, if I am in a bar, and punch someone, I have not committed a crime of assault until it is proven through judicial procedure that I did not act in self-defense, but rather initiated an aggressive act. 

But those niceties of judicial procedure are gone. Instead, people are beaten, and are told that they will be beaten right there in the street if they do a certain thing. 

To beat someone under circumstances in which they cannot fight back, or defend themselves, because of either physical, social, or legal constraints, constitutes torture. It is torture because it is the immobilization of persons in order to inflict pain and the inflicting of pain on someone consciously to get something from them โ€“ whether it is information or obedience, it is the same process. For the police to beat people in the street or on campus is to torture them in public. For the state or the university administration to sanction such beating renders it state sanctioned torture. I am simply calling a spade a spade. 

State sanctioned torture is a violation of international law, of international treaty of which the US is a signatory, and thus a violation of the Constitution of the US, which establishes ratified treaties as part of the law of the land (Article VI). It is unknown to me whether state sanctioned torture, such as the police beating people in the street or on a campus, is illegal according to US legislated law. It is possible that it is not, just as no Congress in the history of the US has managed to pass a law prohibiting lynching. 

When the occupations around the country call for expelling the corporations and corporate power from our day to day politics and our elections, they are only calling for a solution to a part of the problem. We now can see, in the words of the campus police, that we have a government that is criminal, because it sanctions acts that have been declared criminal by international agreement.