Is Anybody Listening?

Just curious: why is it that today’s NY Times front page features social protest in Egypt, Yemen and Hamas, but nothing about California?

Way below the digital “fold,” in small print, there’s a piece with the bland headline “From Crowd Control to Mocking Images,” but it’s more about pepper spray itself than about the serious issues raised by the UC Davis incident.

The opinion pages are similarly focused on Egypt and Israel–nothing on the Occupy movement.

Somehow it reminds me of the classic situation where a kid is trying to get her parents’ attention, and Dad is buried behind his newspaper, Mom is talking away on the phone, and NOBODY IS LISTENING!

What does that kid have to do to get the adults’ attention?

Something outrageous. And even then, the focus will most likely be more on returning things to the status quo as fast as possible, rather than on talking through the issues deeply and seriously considering change.

That seems to be the posture of the UC system officials, who are in the current hot seat of the Occupy movement.  They want this whole mess to just go away, so that students will return to their classrooms and dorm rooms and keep paying their ever-higher tuition to earn degrees for jobs that don’t exist.

Things turned violent in the Middle East when people had enough of leaders who refused to listen.  There, soldiers and tanks were called in against civilians.  Here, we have armed riot police called in against students who were doing nothing more challenging than sitting cross-legged in a quad.

 Imagine what could happen here if protesters stopped being so polite and nonviolent and began demanding attention in a no-nonsense way.

How far would our leaders–from university chancellors to mayors to governors and the politicians in Washington DC–go in choosing to repress and stifle dissent rather than listening and engaging in thoughtful dialogue about the best way forward for all?

A couple of decades ago, when people took to the streets to protest working conditions and lack of freedom in Latin America, the U.S. demonized “the Communists” and sent military aid to the dictators to maintain order in the banana republics.  The civil wars there claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

It is impossible to blame “the Communists” this time, and the unrest is not far away in some other country, it’s right here in our own heartland.

It’s our own sons and daughters who are feeling the crack of the police baton, the burn of the chemical sprays.

What are we going to do about it?

First of all, we’d better start listening.

Shades of Kent State?

Coast to coast, the Occupy movement is shaking things up, demanding engagement and accountability from those in power.

A contingent of Occupy Wall Streeters arrived in Washington DC today, with plans to set up a “temporary occupation” in front of Capitol Hill and “discuss the failure of the U.S. Government to be accountable to its people.”

In California, a huge General Assembly at UC Davis–the site of the criminal attack on students by a police officer–has called for a general strike on all of the University of California campuses in order to “reclaim the UC” from its corporate Board of Regents.

According to the strike motion:

“The continued destruction of higher education in California, and the repressive forms of police violence that sustain it, cannot be viewed apart from larger economic and political systems that concentrate wealth and political power in the hands of the few.

“Since the university has long served as one of the few means of social mobility and for the proliferation of knowledge critical to and outside of existing structures of power, the vital role it plays as one of the few truly public resources is beyond question.”

Interestingly, a prominent tenured UC Davis professor, Cynthia Carter Ching, has chosen to stand with the students against the administration, blaming “the people running this campus” for thinking of students as “data points and dollar signs, rather than as whole human beings.”  Had the administrators seen the students as human beings, she says, they would never “have called in armed riot police to deal with a peaceful protest, tents or no tents.”

Professor Ching also blames the faculty of UC Davis for being “too busy” with teaching and research to pay much attention to how the university as a whole was being run.

“You know, it wasn’t malicious,” she says. “We thought it would be fine, better even. We’d handle the teaching and the research, and we’d have administrators in charge of administrative things. But it’s not fine. It’s so completely not fine. There’s a sickening sort of clarity that comes from seeing, on the chemically burned faces of our students, how obviously it’s not fine.

“So, to all of you, my students, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry we didn’t protect you. And I’m sorry we left the wrong people in charge.

“And to my colleagues, I ask you, no, I implore you, to join with me in rolling up our sleeves, gritting our teeth, and getting back to the business of running this place the way it ought to be run. Because while our students have been bravely chanting for a while now that it’s their university (and they’re right), it’s also ours. It’s our university. And as such, let’s make sure that the inhuman brutality that occurred on this campus last Friday can never happen again. Not to our students. And not at our university.”

It should surprise no one that the students in the UC system are unwilling to entrust their welfare to the “busy busy” faculty or the stone-faced administrators.

And it’s not just the University of California.  There were arrests at Baruch College in New York today, and an open letter from a Yale philosophy professor has gone viral on the Web, with over 1,200 faculty signatories calling on university and college presidents to enforce “campus safe zones” for student protest.

It seems to me that the spirits of the four students killed by police at the Kent State protests a generation ago, back in 1970, are hovering over us these days.

Could it happen again?

Yes, in a heartbeat.  If anything police training has only gotten tougher in the new millennium, with less and less tolerance for any public “disorder.”

Those of us who work with college students know that if they have gone out into the quads and commons to protest, it is because there are very serious issues afoot that must be addressed now.

Generally speaking, college students would much rather be focusing on either their studies or their parties.

If they are participating in general assemblies and sit-ins, it is because the system in which they were raised, and in which they expected to find comfortable berths, has been shredded to the point where they can clearly see the gaping holes in the framework.

No longer can students expect to find jobs that will help them dutifully pay off their exorbitant student loans.  Can we blame them for glaring balefully at the administrators and politicians running the show, and asking angrily, “So what is it all for?”

The sad truth is that California now spends more on its prisons than on its universities, despite the fact that crime rates have fallen steadily since the 1990s.

As Juan Cole puts it in his excellent Truthdig column today,”the defunding of higher education in favor of an enormous gulag dovetails with a rise in the paramilitary repression of the population as one of America’s premier industries.

“Not only are UC Davis students being hit with massive tuition increases to pay for the penitentiaries and their policing, they are also being treated like unruly inmates by a militarizing police force.”

This is not the America we want to be, or to become.  It is time to stand with the Occupy movement and demand the demilitarization of our society, and the redirecting of resources towards education, innovation, creativity and social well-being.

The students are leading the way.  We older folk, who bear the responsibility for the current national and international crisis, must break the dark spell of conformity and accompany  them.  Now.

Violence against peaceful protesters–a federal crime?

So far I have not been able to get past the still image of the latest shocking example of police violence inflicted on unresisting young people.

I don’t need to watch the students begin to writhe and cry out in pain, I don’t have to hear the gasps of the onlookers or the shouts of the cops as the situation shifts suddenly from quiet resistance to chaotic disarray.  My imagination can set it all in motion, without the aid of video.

But the video was shot, and is now making its viral way around the Web, just like those shocking images, from not very long ago, of the abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

There too, what was striking was the imbalance of power–the heavily armed and aggressively clothed military police, against unarmed, and, in the case of Abu Ghraib, naked civilians, whose only crime, in most cases, was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At both UC Davis and Abu Ghraib, the victims may have lacked firepower, but they have something even more potent on their side: the moral outrage of the onlookers.  Once those moments of violation are caught on film and sent out into cyberspace, it doesn’t take long for public opinion to rise up against such an obvious abuse of power.

I am always curious, in a morbid sort of way, about the mentality of the perpetrators of this kind of violence.  Are they the grown-up version of the 7th grade bully, who takes pleasure in making other kids squirm?  Has their capacity for empathy been dulled or extinguished?  Are they simply sick, psychopathic sadists?

If any of these are the case, how could we have entrusted the crucial job of maintaining social order–otherwise known as policing–to such people?

The same old boys’ club that protected Jerry Sandusky and the Catholic priest pedophiles all those years is a strong force in the military and the police forces.  But at some point an individual will push things too far, and the club will no longer be able to protect him.  Thus Charles Graner, the mastermind behind the Abu Ghraib abuses, was eventually thrown in prison himself, and the officer who took it upon himself to casually pepper-spray those innocent UC Davis students has been suspended.

Nobody in the U.S. wants to see an eruption here of the kind of civil violence that overtook Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and so many other countries where civilians have been pitted against police or soldiers deployed by government officials who cared more about their own power than about the rights of their citizens.

Here in the U.S., we simply want to be able to exercise our constitutional right to peaceably gather in public places to express our political views.

Any city, state or federal government official who inflicts violence on such a peaceful gathering is guilty not only of a serious human rights violation, but also of violating the U.S. Constitution.

Last time I looked, this was a federal crime.

%d bloggers like this: