Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Violence and Non-Violence, Once Again: Lessons from Recent Political Developments on the Berkeley Campus (Part 1)

In one of his most widely read essays, Louis Althusser made the famous remark that ideology and its subjects never run around saying “I am ideological!”[1] From the perspective of the interpellated subject, there is no such a thing as an “outside” to ideology—because ideology has already profoundly structured the subject’s sense of self-understanding. We’ll ask the reader to indulge us and allow us to paraphrase Althusser’s statement with respect to recent political development on UC campuses after yet another year of protests, police violence, administrative impunity, and repression of political activism: One of the defining peculiarities of state violence today is that it never runs around proclaiming “I am violent!”

In the context of the ongoing prosecutions of student activists and a faculty member who were brutalized on November 9,[2] let us revisit a recent civil court case, in which a graduate student sued UCPD officer Brendan Tinney for breaking her finger at a large protest in support of the Wheeler Hall occupation on November 20, 2009. While silently watching the trial from the back of the courtroom, we learned a great deal. We witnessed how cops lie under oath with arrogance and impunity: we heard improbable accounts of students trying to snatch guns from cops and pull their batons—improbable because these incidents had never been reported up to that moment, even by the officers themselves. We saw—yet again—that the UC administration will spare no expense to crush its own graduates, teachers, students, scholars, and community members; that it will resort to grossly unethical practices and attack the integrity, dignity, and humanity of its own students, scholars, and workers; that, in blatant disrespect for its own professed “community standards,” it will engage in calculated humiliation and disrespect of those same members whose “outstanding academic achievements” it will then take credit for.

But we want to stay on point here, so we’ll focus on one fine yet significant detail from Officer Brendan Tinney’s and Sergeant Donald Jewell’s public testimonies. Why could these two police officers so easily claim, genuinely blind to the glaring contradictions, that what they did on November 20, 2009—by crushing the hand of a graduate student, by thrusting their batons into the stomachs, spleens, kidneys, and ribs of dozens of bare-bodied students in the vicinity of the incident—did not constitute an act of “violence”? How could they deny that their acts were violent?

One thing we learned from Officer Tinney’s public testimony is that police officers are trained to “separate out the injury from the reasonable force the police [have] to use.” In other words, in the mind of an officer who has undergone “proper training,” the causal relationship between the “force” used and the injury or death it inflicts, between the act of violence and the wounded, maimed, or dead body, is intentionally obscured. Their batons don’t injure bodies, they make “contact” with them. In the cryptic, sanitized language of crowd control policies and police training manuals, serious injury and even death are present simply as the collateral effect of maintaining “peace and order,” “health and safety”[3]; they are disembodied, bureaucratic facts that need to be filed away.

Further, the excess of violence (“force” in the idiom of contemporary policing) is never self-evident from the point of view of the police because ”force” is always the preemptive measure deployed against an imagined stable, ahistorical violent subject, projected onto concrete and diverse situations, humans, and realities. Shortly after November 9, 2011, the UC Berkeley Police Association published an open letter to the outraged public to explain their perspective and offer excuses (prefaced by a denial—“by no means are we interested in making excuses”).[4] Compared to 1964, the era of the Free Speech movement on campus, the letter states, “[o]ur society in 2011 has become an extremely more violent place to live and to protect. […] Disgruntled citizens in this day and age express their frustrations in far more violent ways—with knives, with guns and sometimes by killing innocent bystanders.”[5] Unlike the old days, in other words, the world today is a far more dangerous and unsafe place. This is a bizarre statement—the sense of threat could apply to any place and time; it reveals nothing but prejudice, verging on plain indoctrination. It gives us a genuine picture of the collective subjectivity of a “well-trained” cop, in whose imaginary an outbreak of violence is always imminent. So in response to students pitching tents and linking arms, the article continues, “[i]n the back of every police officer’s mind is this:  How can I control this incident so it does not escalate into a seriously violent, potentially life-threatening event for all involved?”[6]

For those of us who do not come from communities where police brutality is an everyday reality, it is worth repeating that the police are trained to “see” violence before it happens, and if it doesn’t happen—to invent it, to interpret every gesture with a prejudiced eye and imagine the aggressive, threatening, “violent” behavior. And then, to unleash a preemptive attack. Again, there is a long history of how many times police have murdered individuals because they have interpreted the gestures of their victims the wrong way. Such prejudice has long been racialized, exposing communities of color to chronic harassment, incarceration, and death. Currently, the state is engaged in promoting a new ahistorical stereotype of the “violent protester,” structured around a logic of prejudice, stigma, and exclusion—where violence against protestors appears a priori reasonable and justified. That the figure of the “violent protester” has become a trope in the liberal media and a target of condemnation in popular liberal discourse is a direct effect and continuation of the logic of the violent state, masqueraded behind the language of peace, order, and safety. We’ll continue this thought in another post.

In the immediate aftermath of November 9, 2011, Chancellor Birgeneau attempted to justify the brutality of the police by claiming that “linking arms is not non-violent.”[7] But the origin of this infamous claim—which Birgeneau reproduced uncritically—should be properly attributed to UCPD Captain Margo Bennet. According to Bennet, “[t]he individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence […] I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”[8] This is also how shaking or holding a barricade, chanting “hold the line,” linking arms, refusing to leave, or even simply being trapped and having nowhere to go after being ordered to leave, becomes an act of violence. Bennet’s and Birgeneau’s dangerous leap of logic has now culminated in UCPD’s sinister tactic of using their legal right of access to the medical records of baton-injured students who sought treatment at the Tang Center, to identify them for the purpose of prosecuting them. It is a classic example of how the police have increasingly turned statutes and laws, initially aimed at protecting the victims from its assailants, against the victims themselves (charging Occupy Oakland activists with hate crimes or lynching is another recent example). Such use of the law was rightly called “perverse” by ACLU attorney Linda Lye.[9] It shows that the state is making a causal link between wounded bodies and violent perpetrators, resulting in a tautological configuration that turns the victim of police violence into a violent subject, into an aggressor, while at the same time victimizing the real perpetrator and erasing from the picture the actual agent of violence.

If, then, one asks what remains in the category of “non-violence” according to the rationality of the police, it is the absolute, uncritical obedience to their authority, especially when that authority violates the rights of citizens or grossly abuses the means of violence and the power to incriminate—in short, “non-violence” according to the police means the uncritical compliance with the growing arbitrary power of the sovereign. This takes us to the somewhat self-evident point that the state has successfully instrumentalized and redefined the slippery term “violence” to repress and criminalize various forms of dissent against austerity measures, and to shrink and eliminate established spaces and practices of constitutionally protected forms of political expression. One may argue that, stripped of its legitimating rationality, this is the creeping logic of authoritarian power. And to a certain extent it is. But this is not the same as the classical expansion of the executive authority of the state, such as, for instance, this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, passed with a provision that allows for the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects on US land, including citizens, without trial. Much more insidiously, the police operate within the juridical regime of the liberal state, while using interpretive tactics to bend definitions of crime and expand their own power to incriminate dissenting subjects.

If we take into account these drastic shifts in the meaning of “violence,” a much less self-evident point emerges—that violence is a discursive rather than an ontological category. Even some of the most astute political thinkers and philosophers who have written extensively on the question of violence have treacherously presumed, or even argued for, the ontological nature of violence. But if we take violence as a discursive construct, we can see how it has become a crucial terrain upon which the state wages a war against political dissent. Currently, it is being pushed to the limits of the intelligible in order to accommodate the expanding authority of the state to prosecute and eliminate different forms of political resistance against deepening austerity.

[1] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation,” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, p. 118; also available at
[2] “On the November 9 Stay-Away Orders:  The University and its ‘Lawful’ Business,”
[3] ReclaimUC has published a great critique of the “health and safety” discourse in the context of the Wheeler ledge student action on March 3, 2011. “Health and Safety on the Wheeler Ledge,”; For information on the Wheeler ledge action, see Marika Iyer and Alex Barnett, “Public Education Is on Edge,” Daily Californian, March 8, 2011,
[4] Jordan Bach-Lombardo, “UC Berkeley Police Officers’ Association Responds,” Daily Californian, November 28, 2011;
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] For a good critique, see Rei Terada, “Not non-violent civil disobedience,” Work without Dread,
[8] Will Kane and Demian Bulwa, “UC cops’ use of batons on Occupy camp questioned,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2011, (emphasis added)
[9] American Civil Liberties of Northern California, Letter to Chancellor Birgeneau from March 13, 2012, p. 4;

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