An Open Letter to UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy White
On Thursday, January 19 I spent a good part of the afternoon as a member of the crowd protesting outside the UC Regents meeting. I stood with students I'd taught, students I knew from their work with campus organizations, and students I've seen at other demonstrations. I stood with faculty, staff, Occupy activists from the region, and students from other campuses.
I stood right behind a barricade formed from placards painted after the cover of books used in our classrooms. This book-barricade was both a visual intervention (asserting knowledge as our choice of defense) and something that helped us to maintain our shape as a crowd.
In the two hours I was behind that barricade, we didn't move forward or back. We just stood there, chanting, talking, expressing our anger. The crowd got bigger and louder, but its peaceful character didn't change. The crowd successfully used Occupy Movement practices to control itself. Nevertheless, toward the end of the Regent's meeting, a UCPD officer declared through a bullhorn that our gathering was "an unlawful assembly."
The crowd chanted, "Tell us why! Tell us why! Tell us why!" It was an honest request.
No one on the other side made even the slightest gesture to respond to our question. And no administrator made even the slightest gesture towards negotiating with us. To do so would have been to admit that the UC Regents were trapped inside the building. To do so would have been to admit that the University of California Regents had grossly underestimated UC Riverside when it chose the campus for its meeting.
Our campus is "docile" by some standards. We don't have Berkeley or UCLA's history of activism. A lot of our students commute, which means that our campus environment is less condensed, less volatile.
UC Riverside is an open campus - perhaps the most open in the University of California system. Parking is relatively cheap and easy. Our students are so diverse it's hard to imagine what person would think, "this campus doesn't represent me." If Berkeley and UCLA are often the sites of large protests it is partly because those campuses represent the system - participating in an action there has a unique symbolic function as those campuses are "flagship" campuses.
Our campus represents something else. Our campus is rich with transfers from the community college system, rich with returning students, veterans, parents, kids who are the first in their families to graduate from college. Dreamers.
In the University of California system, our campus has one of the most organic relationships with its region. This makes for good press, but it also means that of the UC campuses we are the most reliant on state funds. We are the most vulnerable, our life as a public university feels quite precarious.
On some level, the people planning this meeting banked on that precarity. They banked on the notion that our students are too busy working to pay their tuition (and/or their parents' mortgages) to get involved with a protest.
The people coordinating the Regents meeting seemed to have been surprised by the size of the crowd, and by its persistence. The UCPD and the administration's confusion struck a lot of us as dangerous.
When the UCPD declared our demonstration an "unlawful assembly" it implicitly announced its intention to use force to break up the crowd without seeking another way to address the situation: negotiation of an exit for the Regents. With a negotiated exit the Regents risked not violence, but the embarrassment of being shunned.
The only instruction given to us was to not advance. In two hours, there'd been no motion from the crowd indicating that we would do so. There was discussion about moving forward and also if we should back up, since many of us were crowded on stairs and if the UCPD advanced on us there, we'd likely be hurt. But we did neither. We held our ground. The barricade formed at the front helped us to do that.
Word got out that the Regents were trying to leave via the back of the building (protesters were also there, but in smaller numbers). The crowd at the front broke up as we tried to reform at the building's service entrance.
When we got to the back of the student center, those forming the book barricade tried to take their protective stance at the front of the crowd. Someone took one of the metal barricades and pulled them towards the protesters, as we'd been doing all afternoon at various points around the building. No one had previously interfered with this.
The UCPD found their chance, though - as the crowd regrouped at the back of the Hub, they used force to prevent the formation of another blockade. Later, they would describe the attempt to form a barricade as violent. When the protesters went to move barricades (again, as they'd been doing all day with no interference), it was not an act of violence. There was nothing threatening about it - the threat was that the activists were going to successfully block the street. At this point, people were shoved to the ground, dragged across the pavement and plastic pellets were shot at the crowd. I saw wounds left by these pellets on students I've seen in my own classrooms. There is ample video out there showing this.
The UCPD threw people to the ground, the UCPD shot their new pellet guns into the crowd, the UCPD used force on us. BY this point, I should add, people had been protesting for hours - at any point the UCPD or the campus administration might have sought another path by engaging the protesters in dialogue. Honestly, I think that the people running security at the Regents meeting got romanced by the thrill of a military-style escape plan.
The next day: UC administrators organized an Orwellian campaign to represent the violence of that incident as caused not by the UCPD but by the protesters. Even more bizarre was the eagerness for the administration to blame not students, but the public - as if the two should be distinguished from each other. In weekly letter to the campus community the Chancellor White claimed that "the disturbance of a few individuals" ruined the demonstration, and that they did not represent the "non-violent students and community members engaged in peaceful protest and exercising their right to free speech." But the people beaten and shot at by the UCPD are our students; they are our colleagues. And they are our neighbors. We were all in it together. They are the public, and the public is us.
Tell us why, Chancellor White. Why you stopped seeing yourself in us.