Public Comment

A Crisis of Legitimacy in Berkeley

By Steve Martinot
Friday March 16, 2012 - 11:42:00 AM

Police action in Berkeley has been the subject of much discussion of late. There were problematic police responses to phonecalls (directly impacting Peter Cukor's murder in the Berkeley hills Feb. 18), two different apologies by the police chief, a degree of outrage or at least concern by Berkeleyans, a special community meeting to vet the issues, direct police pressure on a reporter at that meeting to report only what would be agreeable to the police chief, a further apology by the chief for that pressure, and a public statement made by some Berkeley police officers dissociating themselves from the chief's action with respect to the reporter (SFChron, March 12, 2012), claiming it could damage their relation of trust with the community. 

The Occupy movement was mentioned in all this, because police expressed concern that an Occupy march might possibly appear, which would upstage Cukor's call for help. This invokes a broader context, and gives a different meaning to the above events. 

The police have been the subject of discussions in Berkeley City Council lately because of their involvement in the suppression of Occupy Oakland. Berkeley police had been requested to assist the Oakland police on Oct. 23 and 24, under a mutual aid agreement, and participated in the demolition of the Oakland encampment, as well as in subsequent encounters with protesters. Berkeley police officers were videoed in Oakland, engaged in actions against political expression, actions that the city of Berkeley does not condone. Some Berkeley officers were videoed with their badge numbers and names taped over, in violation of the law. This led to proposals in City Council that police mutual aid agreements be revised, and weakened so that Berkeley police officers could not step beyond Berkeley ethical standards. 

But Berkeley police had been involved in clearing out the Occupy Berkeley encampment on Martin Luther King Park at roughly that same time, much to the chagrin of some city councilmembers, who understood the encampments as valid political expression, as protected speech, as it were. The encampment offered in reality no threat to the city that could not be dealt with by the encampment itself through its internal processes. These demolitions of the Oakland and Berkeley encampments should have been given broad community discussion before the fact. They are relevant to the Cukor case insofar as the police have engendered for themselves an antagonistic relation. 

It is noteworthy that SF's police chief is acting similarly. He has recently demanded (March 13, 2012) that SF Mayor Lee veto a measure giving the city greater power over agreements between SF police officers and the FBI. 

Politically speaking, the Occupy encampments present an interesting phenomenon because of their populist character. In Oakland, for instance, before being crushed on October 23, the encampment had constructed itself as a village. It had a kitchen, a library, a café, a restaurant, and a first aid tent. It was self-determining and self-governing, a source of community and engagement for the activists that populated it, on top of its becaming a site where many homeless people, who could get recognition and care nowhere else, found a community and a sense of belonging for themselves.The village aspect of the encampments provided services and comfort to individuals that the city either neglected or refused to provide. (There were some inevitable but not irresolvable problems; in the name of these problems, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in a questionable act of arbitrary violence.) 

What has gotten lost in the focus on violence and counterviolence is the political recognition in both cities that Occupy was a political expression which political leaders needed to address, to dialogue with, and perhaps even honor as a demographic and democratic phenomenon, especially in light of the initial general support that the encampments got. Shutting them down, throwing them in the trash barrel with mass arrests, were not within the ethical purview of city councils. Indeed, there was some embarassment when the police departments of Oakland and Berkeley demolished the encampments without explicit city council decisions to do so, and using flimsy excuses about public safety, sanitation, etc. The embarassment stemmed from the fact that the police acted autonomously – suspiciously in concert with assaults on encampments occurring across the nation, which smacked of federal coordination, and thus unconstitutional intervention into local affairs (read the 10th Amendment). 

What all this implies is a crisis of legitimacy in civilian government in our cities. Does the political structure command the police, or have the police become a political power obeying a different authority than local political bodies? Are the police exercising and demanding a legitimacy that is not given them by local political bodies? When Berkeley's police chief first apologized in the Cukor murder event, it was not for not responding to Cukor's first call, but for not informing the community sufficiently. That is, information is being substituted for performance. (Shades of Reagan who, when the government was caught redhanded, projected changing the perception of the government rather than its actions.) This then directly extends to the police chief telling a reporter what to write. 

If the police assume control over political or journalistic expression, then authentic political leadership has been marginalized, divested of authority, and thus of legitimacy. If that is the case, and police actions have demonstrated that the political legitimacy of the city has been eroded, then we the people have only ourselves to turn to, to reconstruct a political legitimacy for ourselves. 

Perhaps that is what the Occupy movement has wanted us to do all along.