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UC-Berkeley Chancellor Defends Violent Shutdown of Occupy Berkeley Protests

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Galvanized by the police crackdown and outpouring of support, students have called for a campus general strike on Tuesday.

CREDIT: AP / Ben Margot

The video is damning.

University of California—Berkeley students stand in front of a line of police officers on Wednesday afternoon, arms locked or slung around each other. Moments before—in less sensational video footage—they chanted, “PEACE-FUL PRO-TEST.” When the officers advance and begin snapping their batons at students’ torsos, the chants give way to screams and a cry of “Stop beating students!” One student is knocked over by the blows; as his friends rally to help him up, the baton strikes continue.

It’s clear there was no physical provocation for the assaults: Students were trying to prevent police from taking down a fledgling Occupy Cal encampment.

And then last Thursday, UC—Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau sent an e-mail to the entire campus defending the actions of the police both that afternoon and in a more violent clash later in the evening.

“It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents,” Birgeneau wrote in the e-mail. “This is not non-violent civil disobedience.”

Birgeneau characterized the police actions as being “forced” and expressed regret for “all injuries, to protesters and police, that resulted from this effort.” (It’s worth noting that there are no reports of police injuries, though several protesters reported suffering broken ribs and severe bruising.)

The e-mail, ostensibly written to calm the outrage, only fueled it—and drew a battle line between the Berkeley administration and the rest of the campus community.

Three faculty members, tasked by a caucus of 45 instructors, wrote an open letter to the school administration, including Birgeneau:

We call on the Berkeley administration to immediately put an end to these grotesquely out-scale police responses to peaceful protest. We insist that the administration abandon the premise that the rigid, armed enforcement of a campus regulation, in circumstances lacking any immediate threat to safety, justifies the precipitous use of force.

We express NO CONFIDENCE in the Regents, who have failed in their responsibility to fight for state funding for public education, and have placed the burden of the budget crisis on the backs of students.

As of this post, the letter has received nearly 1,600 signatures from instructors and has also sparked a petition calling for the immediate resignation of top administrators.

“The actions taken go against all that we are taught in the UC system,” student Alexander Judd wrote on the online petition. “The recent course of events have shaken my support for our officers and our administration. Find a little humanity—please—before it is too late.”

Galvanized by the police crackdown and outpouring of support, students have called for a campus general strike on Tuesday. Occupy Oakland, following its massive clash with squads of violent riot police two weeks ago, is planning to join the students and the Stanford encampment has expressed solidarity.

But it’s hard to tell whether the controversy over the brutal police assaults has forced a shift in tactics.

While UC’s Police Chief Mitch Celaya said he hoped to avoid a repeat in police action, he also told the San Francisco Chronicle that the police force was considering the use of pepper spray and tear gas to handle the Tuesday action.

At the General Assembly before the Wednesday night assault, the thousand-strong crowd rehearsed a speaker’s words on the People’s Mic. “It is our duty to fight for our freedom! It is our duty to win!”

And on the same steps of Mario Savio’s famous speech, with decades of powerful history behind them, students and faculty in Berkeley are prepared to stand resolute against the administration that has betrayed them.

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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