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Reflections on Police Violence at Berkeley

I’ve been meaning to provoke a bit more discussion regarding the confrontation between police and protesters at UC Berkeley a couple of weeks ago (although I did post something on the matter before the Nov 20th occupation), but the demands of teaching and preparing for AAA’s have been forestalling my best intentions.  On top of that, to be honest, i’m not sure what I think about it.  I’m left, mostly, with a bunch of half-articulated questions.  Aaron Bady, a graduate student in English at Berkeley has some reflections along that line over at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Some sort of administration response to the occupation was inevitable, of course. But why was it necessary to direct police violence against the students outside Wheeler Hall? (In fact, the university has called for an independent investigation of police actions and the university’s own decisions that resulted in the police being called onto the campus.) The more the riot police surrounded Wheeler, the more students came out to watch. But the police treated that assembly of peaceful spectators like a clear and present danger, pushing and shoving back students whose crime seemed to be their very presence on their own campus. I cannot overstate how pointless and stupid it was. The police had marked off a perimeter around the building with crime-scene tape, and I have yet to hear the allegation that a single student ever tried to cross it. But when the police began to set up metal barricades, they ordered students to move back as they smashed the barricades into the front row of students. Students who didn’t respond instantly were beaten with batons; students who touched the barricades had their hands pounded with force enough to break bones.

via Making Sense of Senseless Violence at Berkeley – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In response to these questions Bady makes some gestures towards both Althusser and Weber and, while I think both are important routes to traverse, I think the tone in the passage above is probably the most appropriate–simultaneously critical and perplexed.  How can we proceed and maintain its tenor?


2 thoughts on “Reflections on Police Violence at Berkeley

  1. I followed this post through the last to your first post and onto Jonathan Simon’s original post, and while I appreciate the general approach you (and he) are taking, I don’t really understand what he, or you, think is phony about the privatization narrative. Which is to say, a wider theoretical frame is welcome and useful, but I’m unconvinced by the implication (more than an argument) that doing so somehow contradicts the argument that the difference between public and private education is what is at stake here, and that it’s an important battle to fight.

    (I’m Aaron Bady by the way)


  2. Thanks for the question, Aaron (and sorry for taking so long to get back to you–the AAA meetings were this last weekend and I couldn’t find time to sit down at a computer)

    I won’t speak for Jon Simon here, and I think you’re right that my own thoughts need to be worked out more fully, but in general, I think there’s two main reasons the “privatization” narrative rings a little off-key to me:

    1) Most of the work of the anthropology of knowledge, sociology of knowledge, and science studies (especially the history of science) for the past 20 years has tried to show that rather than the ideal separate realms we like to consider them, “the academy” (or “science” or “higher learning”) and “business” have been complexly intertwined for centuries. Descartes was more or less a traveling salesmen. Newton was Exchequer of the Bank of England. The anthropology museum at UC Berkeley, as well as the department itself was founded by Phoebe Hearst (yes, related to *that* Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his time).

    On the one hand, and importantly, this mutual relation has produced a lot of good stuff. On the other hand, acknowledging this fact I think renders any story about a more-or-less recent “corporate take-over” a little meaningless at the same time that it questions the absolute evil that such stories often make private enterprise to be.

    2) Most of the best scholarship on neoliberalism (see the post on my personal blog “What is neoliberalism and how can we tell?”) has pointed out that whatever “neoliberalism” might mean it is *not* the retreat of the state, nor the de-funding of government programs–it is a *reallocation* of state monies towards the kinds of things Simon talks about in his book and Loic Wacquant calls “the penal state”. So the question, again, is not “privitization” per se, but what kinds of funding decisions can be justified; how do people imagine the role of the state?

    I hope that helps clarify a bit where I’m coming from.

    Like I said, I actually appreciated your article quite a bit… especially for the way it deferred absolute answers to the problems at hand and tried to open a space of inquiry.

    P.S. I don’t think my, or Simon’s, ideas are absolutely original here. I remember Wendy Brown saying something similar at one of the teach-in’s (I’ll try to find the YouTube), although she ultimately decided to go with “privitization” because it’s an effective tool of political mobilization–a useful simplification


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