Gentle / Strong

I didn’t really sleep the first few nights after my arrest.  Exhausted as I was by a night spent in jail—coming on the heels of several nights where academic work and organizing meetings had kept me up late—I felt a profound sense of disquiet, and returned to that most familiar and comforting of behaiors for any graduate student: reading.  Indeed, with so many extra hours spent not-sleeping, I was finally able to crack open that book of non-sociology on my bedstand, Cry, the Beloved Country.  And what did I find, but this passage:

 “I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.  I shall do this…because I cannot find it in me to do anything else.  I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe, I am lost when I ask if men, white men or black men, Englishmen or Afrikaners, Gentiles or Jews, will approve.  Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true.

I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul.  I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another.  I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that.  I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die.  They died rather than live, that was all.”

When I started writing this post, the ambivalent, resigned martyrdom of the above quote seemed to capture exactly how I felt about my own activism after watching two weeks of violent repression of the Occupy movement and contemplating my own part in it.  But then, on further reflection, it doesn’t, and neither do any of the other boxes into which I have tried to fit my political life post-November 9th—a question which, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, is still weighing heavily on my mind.  After all, can I really say that getting beat up makes me a hero—as many kind posters on this blog have suggeste?  And can I even call myself a victim when an extraordinary trauma for me is no more than routine for many people of color?

My initial impulse after the 9th was to withdraw: to take some time to sit in my office, read sociology, clear my mind, and heal.  Yet even when I stayed physically away from the ongoing protests on campus and across the country, I couldn’t avoid them, compulsively checking the news and twitter.  Even when I shut myself off electronically, I couldn’t stop obsessing about the violence being visited on the occupy movement.  So I came up with an alternative strategy: to “put all my chips on the table” in a single-minded pursuit of seeing the wrongs committed on the 9th righted.  I was going to thrown down all the social and financial resources of a rich white kid who went to Princeton towards the all-consuming quest to see Chancellor Birgeneau resign and a few riot cops join the ranks of the unemployed.  If a narrow focus on a single issue was what it took to achieve justice, so be it.

But justice for whom, exactly?  I am a child of liberal universalism, and have always subscribed to the idea that an injustice to one is supposed to be an injustice to all.  Indeed, before this month I would probably have noted with pride that every cause I have ever been involved with has been against injustice committed against others.  I have mobilized for immigrants without fear of deportation, spoken for public education knowing I will not pay higher tuition, and protested for animal rights with certainty I will not be eaten.  The result is a sort of detachment that has given me space to reflect on my activism, but also to distance myself from it, putting politics in a segmented space that I could leave behind when I left a protest and return to at my leisure.

Perhaps that is a good model for activism, but for me, it is no longer a tenable one.  As I have discovered, the truth is that an injustice to me is a lot different than an injustice to you.  Try as I might to put what has happened in context, trauma to my body and my soul has had a qualitatively different impact on me that no awareness of external suffering can quite equal.  I have often lamented the inability of activists with whom I have worked to reach pragmatic compromises and frame their concerns about injustice in broadly appealing ways, yet now I fully understand.  Rationality and detachment in a world full of wrongs—the ability to lead a balanced life while aware of how fucked-up things are—is its own form of privilege.

The other day, I saw the cop who on November 9th beat me and later told me I had no rights.  She was standing outside Occupy Cal, casually chatting with a few other officers and keeping an eye on our newly reconstituted encampment.  I walked up to her and asked her if she could look me in the eye and tell me that I deserved to have my ribs broken.  She looked past me, not abashedly but indifferently, and told me that she had never broken anyone’s ribs.  I don’t know what response I was expecting, but I had certainly hoped for a glimmer of empathy (if not contrition).  I broke into tears as I walked away.  Suddenly the most inflammatory rhetoric of our movement—that cops are inhuman pigs, that their violence against us justifies violence in response, and that those that do not join in our denuciations are complicit in their injustice—made sense to me.

And that is why I have to admit that, although my heart wanted to be with my brothers and sisters in Cal and Davis this last week, I am grateful for the enforced separation from the movement that 3,000 miles of distance has brought me.  We activists must walk a delicate line, filling ourselves with rage at the system while not hating those within it, dedicating ourselves to justice while not being consumed by injustice, and believing in the inherent goodness of humanity in the face of at times overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  We must, in the words of a wise comrade, be both gentle and strong.

I thought I had largely struck that balance, but now that this has become personal, I am no longer so sure.  As Alan Paton writes of apartheid South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country:

“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”

In Between Protests, I Also Do Some Sociology

At long last, my first peer-reviewed academic publication is available online in the journal Ethnography, at least to those with access to an academic database.

I wrote this as my Junior Paper at Princeton, and I have to confess that my thinking on some of these issues has evolved and matured a bit.  Still, given the theme of this article – the meaning and power of dramatic, unconventional, non-institutional protest – now seems like a rather appropriate time to see it published.

Arrested

Yesterday, I was beaten, arrested, and jailed for participating in an act of civil disobedience against the privatization of education and criminalization of dissent in California.

I’ve spent the last day trying to process what happened, and writing this is an attempt to get it out of my mind and on to paper (having spent last night on a cement floor, I could use some mental solace).  There’s nothing exceptional about my experience, and yet, even knowing that, I write this grappling with a feeling of voicelessness and powerlessness that I have never before experienced.  I know that, once you start talking about “police brutality” and “police states”, you enter into a group of wild-eyed conspiracy theorists that most Americans dismiss out of hand.  I can’t control that portrayal, but for whatever reason, I need to talk about what happened, even if I can’t figure out why it has affected me so much.

We set up “Occupy Cal” in an attempt to open up our university to groups that had been excluded from it, to create a safe space to debate and discuss the future of public education, and to exercise our first amendment right to free assembly. We all knew that what we were doing was in violation of university policy—which views encampments as, somehow, on par with graffiti and building occupations insofar as they disrupt classes and harm university property—and that in doing so we risked arrest.  But, having passed a resolution explicitly declaring our encampment peaceful and non-violent, we expected those arrests to follow the rules of engagement that have defined civil disobedience since the Civil Rights era.  Cal has had occupations before – protesting against apartheid, for example – and while the university didn’t like them, it ultimately tolerated them as a means of democratic dissent.

We were wrong to think the same would happen for us.  Our encampment was torn down at 4:00 p.m., but we set up again.  At 9:30 p.m., the police issued an order to disperse.  We stayed, linking arms and chanting “Peaceful protest!”  The police advanced up to the crowd and started stabbing and beating people with batons.  Most of them were riot cops from other jurisdictions; a professor who has been here thirty years assures me that this level of militarization of police (there were officers with shotguns and rubber-bullet guns) is unprecedented.  Although the labels “violent” and “non-violent” get bandied around to the extent that they have virtually lost any meaning in public discourse, I have never seen protesters remain so defiantly peaceful in the face of such brutality.  Reasonable people can disagree about whether privatizing Cal is a good thing; no one should disagree that what this video shows is unconscionable.  I trust you to make your own decisions about who here was “violent” and who was not.

I was in front, near the side of the encampment.  A female officer walked up to me and started stabbing me in the ribs with her baton as I screamed at her that I was peaceful and not resisting her in any way.  She ordered me to back up.  This was impossible since there were lines of people behind me, and, perceiving me as refusing to comply with her orders, she continued stabbing me.  I buckled over, letting go of the people around me, because at this point I realized that only by being arrested would the beating stop.  I threw my hands up into peace signs and shouted that I wanted to be arrested non-violently.  I was not afforded that option.  I was dragged through the officers despite my attempts to comply with the officers out of my own volition.  I put my hands behind my back, but they threw me to the ground anyway.  I turned to ask what the charges were and an officer punched me back to the ground.  (If you think I’m pulling this out of my ass, watch this video at 1:40)

They cuffed me and dragged me into Sproul Hall, where they were holding around thirty of us.  An officer came and asked me my name, and I told it to her.  She then started firing off questions, and I politely told her that before I did that, I wanted to know my rights at this point in the process and when I would be able to speak to a lawyer.  She responded, “You have no rights”, to which I responded “That’s impossible.”  In one of many disturbing moments of the night, she informed me that I was wrong – and wrote me down as a non-cooperative arrestee.   That simple request will earn me extra harsh treatment in the student disciplinary process, she assured me.  Throughout the night, we were referred to as “bodies” not “people.”  I was never Mirandized.

In a sense, at this point, the worst was over.  The thirty of us supported one another, comforted one another, and inspired one another.  We were driven to a county jail in Oakland, where they booked us—threatening that because our crimes were “violent” we could not be released until an Arraignment on Monday.  In a holding cell that reeked of urine, we swapped stories, sang songs ranging from Buffalo Springfield to the Backstreet Boys, and shared a sense of camaraderie that could never be imagined in another setting.  If we were afraid, we weren’t showing it: indeed, I would love to have had the defiant moral clarity of some of my eighteen-year-old comrades.

In the end, the entire process was a sham.  I called my parents collect at 3 a.m. ($4.85 a minute—just to screw the poor a little bit more) telling them they needed to put together $20,000 in bail.  And then, right afterward, a kind officer told me that they were sure that our charges of “resisting arrest” and “participating in a riot” had no chance in court, and so they were going to cite and release us.  They took their sweet time in getting us out, but when we were again free, some of our union brothers and sisters were waiting for us with food, hugs, and their own first arrest stories.  It’s strange to have experienced such wild oscillation between human decency and human cruelty, to interact both with officers who were thoughtful and considerate and those who were mindlessly violent.

On the grand spectrum of police encounters, I’ve gotten off easy.  My injuries are confined to a cracked rib and bruised psyche.  I am an enormously privileged person in that I can get arrested and know that it will not ruin my life or manifestly affect my academic career.  I have received solidarity and comfort from friends all over the country and professors in the department I barely know.  I have not for one moment doubted that my actions were in the right, and that I have nothing to be ashamed of; this is a source of strength that holds me together.  And yet I have spent all day on the verge of crying.

I feel profoundly disempowered by what happened yesterday, in a way that has only become apparent once I left the solidarity of my fellow arrestees.  I feel violated because I no longer am safe in my own body, knowing that I can be stabbed and manhandled and the individuals responsible will face no consequences.  I feel humiliated because some of the people I have talked to seem to think that what happened last night demands no response, which suggests the worthlessness of my suffering and my cause.  I feel small because I see myself arrayed against the implacable forces of an administration bent on spinning my actions into the framework of violent, radicals seeking to disrupt life for good, law-abiding students.  I feel stupid because many of the illusions I grew up with about the rules of engagement in our political system are crumbling before me, leaving me no avenue through which to channel my anger about what has happened to me.

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I’d rather end on a practical note.  I hope anyone reading this will consider writing Chancellor Birgeneau, who ordered the attacks, to tell him that you—as a citizen of Berkeley / California / Earth—do not approve.  We always chant “The whole world is watching” when police start attacking us.  It’d be nice to know that it’s true.