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  • Reflections from UC Davis:On Academic Freedom and Campus Militarization
  • Joshua Clover (bio)

The autumn of 2011 offered extraordinary images of police brutality against students (and not students alone) on University of California campuses. Two stand out, both seemingly following on from the national Occupy movement. On November 9, students attempting to 'occupy' a grassy area at the edge of Berkeley's famed Sproul Plaza, next to the Mario Savio Steps, were batoned by riot police summoned to campus by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, first during the day, and then again that night when Occupy Cal returned. In no small part because a couple of professors were among the beaten, the event became a national news story. This would pale in comparison to events on the Davis campus nine days later, when a low-key tent occupation on the quad—Occupy UC Davis—was broken up by riot police summoned by Chancellor Linda Katehi from [End Page 1] three jurisdictions. The images of one corpulent and distressingly nonchalant officer disbursing military-grade pepper spray to the faces of a couple dozen seated students would swiftly become one of the iconic images of the year, not just for the campus or the university but globally.

In train, there has been considerable discussion of removing the Chancellors who either authorized such actions or were too incapable to command the situation adequately. There has also been a perhaps more consequential debate around the presence of police on college campuses, regarding either their presence per se (for those familiar with the internationally and historically common situation of police-free universities), or in terms of their increasingly militarized form. And these changes in campus dynamics—toward the heavy hand bearing advanced weaponry—have prompted concerns about the implications for the intellectual and academic pursuits of the university, and what we might expect to develop from here.

I want to argue as directly as possible that grasping this new security regime as primarily pertinent to campus intellectual climate is misguided. While this line of inquiry is no trivial matter, it confuses and obscures core issues.

The confusion comes from two entangled commonplaces regarding these dramatic events (and others like them in kind, if not in media saturation). The first is the assumption that we can identify in each case a two-part sequence of cause and effect, in which students protest and police overreact disastrously. The second (with evident implications for the question of academic freedom tout court), is that this to-and-fro is to be conceived exclusively as a freedom of speech issue.

These assumptions form a unity. In this understanding, students first protest, as students are wont to do. The question arises as to the limits of protest, and to what extent certain actions—in this case, politicized camping—count as protected speech. 'Time, place, and manner' provisions are invoked; the police are summoned, heavy with tools. Orders to disperse are given, no dispersal is forthcoming, and then the intolerable thing happens, and everyone scrambles to understand and manage the aftermath.

There can be no doubt that these 'overreactions' are judiciously calculated to produce a chilling effect on student struggle. As with the endless nuisance charges levied against student (and other) organizers, they are designed to exhaust resources, both inner and material. And further there can be no doubt that this chilling effect spills over to the entire campus. In this sense it is certainly reasonable to consider the implications of these actions for free thought and intellectual exploration.

But there are also good reasons—better reasons, I believe—not to shift the debate onto the terrain of thought, ideas, expression, and so forth. It has [End Page 2] suited all sides to allow that this drama revolves around First Amendment issues. Under considerable internal and external pressure, both Chancellors conceded that in these cases, the riot police may indeed have curtailed what really should be protected rights of speech and assembly. Katehi insisted (twice; she is in the habit of using the same formulaic language in multiple press releases) that: "Our campus is committed to providing a safe environment for all to learn freely and practice their civil rights of freedom of speech...


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