We’re Afraid for Virginia Woolf

“We’re Afraid for Virginia Woolf” [1]

Photo by Brenda Norrel

Professor Robert Reich made the connection between Occupy Cal and the Occupy movement in his November 15 Mario Savio Lecture this way: “You must feel in your gut that … the occupations going on all over this country are ways in which people are beginning to respond to the crisis of our democracy.”[2] Occupy Cal and the Open University are just two ways students and faculty on campus have been choosing to meet some of the crises in higher education: diminished state funding for public higher education, the financialization of the public, and questions about the nature and function of education as a public good. In the English Department, we’ve redoubled our commitment to the study of language, believing this task to be central to protest, and an indispensable counterpart to instinctual knowing as Reich describes it. [3]

To recount briefly: in solidarity with worldwide Occupy movements, Occupy Cal had called for a walkout and rally on November 9 to protest, among other things, the privatization of public education. After the rally, campus police used violence against students and faculty who peacefully refused police orders to disband. Former Poet Laureate and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Professor Robert Hass was hit twice with a police baton. In an editorial for the New York Times, he voiced his concern for student safety, and for a university that doesn’t prioritize the same. Professor Geoffrey O’Brien, graduate students Joshua Anderson and Ben Cullen, and President of the English Undergraduate Association Oscar Garcia were brutally beaten as well. Just days after being pulled by her hair and forcibly arrested, Professor Celeste Langan, reflected upon the relationship between economic and intellectual constraint, recalling “how incisively Thoreau diagnoses the effect of ‘insolvency’ on the capacity to think and live freely.

In response, the English department petitioned the Chancellor and Chief of UC Police, joining “the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, in … expressing grave concern about the violent use of batons against peaceful protestors.” Over a hundred and forty members of the English department signed the petition. [5] Similarly, a group of our graduate students circulated a letter to the Chancellor condemning the use of violence as an effort to “foreclose free inquiry” around the crisis in higher education. Eighty-six graduate students from the English department signed the letter. [4]

Graduate students with popular independent blogs have kept careful track of events as they unfolded, and they demonstrated just how fraught the exercise of authority on campus has been. One graduate student meditated on the phrase “The grass is closed,” spoken by one officer to students, to think about the fickle nature of police authority. He writes:

What could it possibly mean to declare that ‘the grass is closed’? Who could have the authority to say so? I had always considered that stretch of grass to be public; I’ve often been among the hundreds of students who eat their lunch there, every day, and 11:30 a.m. is a time of day when it is common to eat lunch. I have had conversations with other students sitting on that very grass, many times. Why was it that I could not do so now? Why had this stretch of grass suddenly become un-public and closed off? No signs said so, and no police tape marked it off. At the far end of that grassy area, in fact, several people were actually sitting on the grass.

Another student has done extensive research on the history of the idea of the “public trust,” looking especially at the evolution of the language of California’s constitution, and the court cases that establish what it means to be in the public trust. A third graduate student has done a careful reading of campus administrators’ rhetoric in addressing the campus community. She finds President Yudof’s continued confidence in his chancellors, despite widespread campus disillusionment, to be “symptomatic of what happens when the president of a public university starts thinking of himself as a CEO,” and she reiterates that this “university is not a corporation. Yet.”

Close reading, in each of these cases, becomes effective critique; we learn how power in the university can hide in and behind language. While not a new lesson, it is one well worth remembering when critique, and spaces of free inquiry are part of what’s at stake. After all, when UCPD razed the tents in the early morning hours, the police also overturned tables of books. Students responded by making “tents” out of books.

At a November 14 meeting we came together to regroup for the following day’s strike (which began with a recitation of poetry by human microphone outside California Hall), rally, and march, to speak freely about fears and uncertainties, and to voice suggestions for how best to deal with the recent occurrences of – and the possibility of future – violence. [5] On November 18, the department held a town hall where we discussed, among other things, what part of the penal code governed UCPD actions on November 9, the unclear basis for calling Alameda County Sheriff officers to aid UCPD, and the more general obfuscation of the chain of command. [6]

One of the resolutions passed by Berkeley’s Faculty Senate on November 28 noted that this lack of transparency runs counter to the recommendations of the June 14, 2010 report of the Police Review Board (“Brazil report”), which included clarifying the proper lines of authority and the approach to non-violent civil disobedience on the Berkeley campus. At the same meeting, the same members of the Senate voted overwhelmingly (336-34) in favor of three resolutions. Each of the resolutions expressed outrage at “the brutal and dangerous police responses against members of the University community at UC Berkeley and other campuses,” and called for the Administration to implement the recommendations of the “Brazil report” immediately. The first resolution appealed to the Administration to “announce that it will not authorize the use of … forceful tactics to prevent or preempt the formation of any ‘unlawful assembly’ that is composed in substantial part of students, faculty, or staff, and remains peaceful and non-violent.” The second resolution “formally alerts the Chancellor and those who report to him that this incident has greatly diminished confidence in the Campus’s leadership,” and the third resolution affirms “support for the right of free speech and peaceful protest by all members of the University community” and “strong opposition to the State’s disinvestment in higher education, which is at the root of the student protests.” [7]

The task at hand continues to be to make sense of the crisis of the UC system. On December 7th, Representations, Qui Parle, and Reclamations hosted a panel discussion and open forum on “Debt, Democracy, and the Public University.” Featured speakers included Wendy Brown, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Meister, Christopher Newfield, and Rei Terada. The panelists’ presentations served as a prompt for a broader, open discussion surrounding education and its relationship to the socio-political movements we are witnessing across many cities and campuses. On December 8th, Lyn Hejinian and Geoffrey O’Brien held an open meeting entitled “Teaching in a Time of Turmoil.”

As a department we’ve responded to violence and obfuscation with thoughtful protest, more research, more discussion, and more community building – attentive to the power of and in language. We remain steadfast in our dedication to protecting and nurturing spaces of free inquiry and critique, and share in efforts to continue to defend public higher education.


[1] This was the slogan from Professor Celeste Langan’s poster on Nov. 9 and Nov. 15, voted one of the best protest signs by the Daily Cal.

[2] In solidarity with Occupy Cal, the speech had been moved to the Mario Savio steps outside Sproul Hall. Rachel Maddow had a segment on the appropriateness of the setting and speech. The Atlantic reported that the night’s gathering was the largest General Assembly in the entire Occupy movement’s history. You can hear the rest of the lecture from that night here.

[3] The day was to culminate in an encampment. Campus administrators approved the day of action and gave permission for students to be on Sproul twenty-four hours a day for a week, but prohibited the use of tents. Almost immediately, Youtube videos of the police violence went viral, though to a lesser extent than the video footage of a UC police officer pepper-spraying nonviolent student protesters at UC Davis.

[4] In three more examples, one graduate student wrote a widely-read letter in support of the General Strike on November 2nd. Another graduate student, explained the events of November 9th in detail in an email to friends and family, and asked for their support calling the Chancellor’s office and the Chief of Police to express their dismay at what had happened. Within two forwarding cycles, the email reached Jesse Kornbluth, who quoted from the letter at length in an article for the Huffington Post. Another graduate student from our department composed a concerned yet sympathetic letter to the Chancellor.

[5] The human microphone is a practice of call and response first used by Occupy Wall Street as a way to amplify speakers’ voices, since New York City requires a permit for “amplified sound” in public.

[6] That same day, the 18th, the English department at UCLA sent a letter of support to ours, to “express our solidarity with the faculty, GSIs, and students who are together actively vocalizing their concerns to the public, to the Regents, and to State legislators. We also endorse and express solidarity with the commitment to nonviolence of these protests, a nonviolence particularly stark in light of the arrests of students and faculty and the brutality perpetrated by police forces at the November 9th demonstration.” The letter goes on, “As the entire UC system faces uncertainty over the future of state support, and as the burden of financing our studies is increasingly passed on to undergraduates even as university services are reduced, it is all the more imperative to acknowledge the ways in which the actions at Berkeley speak for the interests of all of us at UCLA and in our sister departments statewide.” It is signed by seventy-six faculty and graduate students from that department.

[7] On November 21, the Chancellor sent an apology for the police brutality against students and faculty. On November 22, Mark Yudof, President of the UC system, announced plans for an external review of police violence against non-violent students protesting on UC Davis’s campus and another review of all 10 UC campuses’ policing polices for non-violent protest, to be led by UC General Counsel Charles Robinson and UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Christopher Edley Jr..

[8] Additional resources: “Thus, the student protesters‘ point has never been simply that they don’t want to pay more tuition. They want justice and transparency…”