Monday, March 7, 2011

Health and Safety on the Wheeler Ledge

Protesters on Wheeler Hall ledge
Four stories below the ledge occupied by eight protesters (there had been nine, but one had been grabbed by the police earlier in the day), six of whom had locked themselves together with PVC pipes, Vice Chancellor Harry Le Grande nervously walked out in front of the hundreds of protesters who were supporting the occupiers above in order to read a statement from Chancellor Birgeneau. (Actually, Le Grande first attempted to read the statement from the second-floor window, like a king addressing his subjects -- the response from below were deafening boos and angry chants.) The statement, in part, reads:

Yesterday was a Day of Action for Public Education in which you and many others made your voices heard in support of public higher education. Like all of you, I am dismayed at the staggering size of a $1.4 billion cut to all sectors of public higher education. I am fully sympathetic with your concerns about the State’s disinvestment in public higher education and have been working hard in Sacramento to address this issue.

However, you have chosen a method of protest that I cannot support. I am very concerned about your health and safety and urge you to end this unsafe action. In the interest of your safety and that of others, we have closed Wheeler Hall. Please consider your fellow-students’ right to attend classes.
These are some very strange things to say. What jumps out first are the usual propaganda strategies deployed by the UC administration: shift the target of criticism to dodge the blame. "Like all of you," Birgeneau writes in a desperate attempt to conjure up a feeling of solidarity -- the demands of the protesters on the ledge included rolling back the $1.4 billion budget cuts but Sacramento was far from the only target. The key target, which Birgeneau clearly understands, is the UC administration. As we wrote here last fall,
California's economic devastation has little to do with the UC administration's decision to impose austerity on the university. One of the most important goals of the protests on UC campuses [in 2009] was precisely to combat this rhetorical maneuver, to focus attention back on the administration. It's hard work -- politics is synonymous with government, and so it seems that the natural outlet for political protest is Sacramento. But Sacramento is everywhere. The regents, the administration, the built environment of the university itself. Not that it was necessarily our goal, but the protests last year caught Sacramento's attention -- they were the "tipping point" in the state government's decision to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars more to the UC in this year's budget. But as we've been saying all along, more money from the state is irrelevant without regime change in the administration. And, effectively, we've been proven right: this year [i.e. 2010] the regents came together to raise our tuition once again.
UC administrators were the ones responsible for turning to risky Wall Street investments, which cost us $23 billion when the economic crisis hit; UC administrators were the ones who committed themselves to using student tuition -- and the promise of future tuition increases -- as collateral for construction bonds to feed an insatiable appetite for capital projects. For their part, the UC regents are appointed by the governor -- they are extensions of the political center of the state, nodes in a plutocratic constellation of corporate interests and exploitation that hides behind the aura of the country's most "liberal" university. Sacramento, it bears repeating, is everywhere.

But there's a lot more here than just dodging the blame. For starters, look at the language: lots of "I" sentences. "I am dismayed," "I am sympathetic," "I cannot support." We don't care how you feel -- we just care what you do. "I am very concerned," Birgeneau writes, "about your health and safety." Health and safety. What is that most bureaucratic formulation? Not health, not safety, but health-and-safety. What is this compound noun, and what does it mean?

While health and safety is a legalistic construction with an indefinable meaning, it operates in the realm of juridico-legal power. It figures prominently in the Code of Student Conduct [pdf] under the charge "Physical Abuse" (§V.102.08). The text of this violation reads as follows:
Physical abuse including but not limited to rape, sexual assault, sex offenses, and other physical assault; threats of violence; or other conduct that threatens the health or safety of any person.
This charge is clearly intended to deal with sexual assault -- most likely, we might assume given the jurisdiction of the Code, between students. Health and safety, health or safety -- we begin to see that the terms are bureaucratic buzzwords that capture student-on-student behavior. But health and safety carry an even more paternalistic burden -- they constitute the justification for exercising jurisdiction over the off-campus activities of the student: "Student conduct that occurs off University property . . . is subject to the Code where it . . . adversely affects the health, safety, or security of any member of the University community." In other words, health and safety marks the the university's claim to jurisdiction over the body of the student, over not only the student's behavior but also her biological processes: "the health, safety, or security of the body can, under almost any circumstances, be used to impugn that student. Everything from nonviolent civil disobedience to having some beers might have a negative impact on the body of the student participant."

Students have begun to turn this standard back against both the administration and the police:



"The only thing that's not secure is those people's health and safety. Health and safety, H&S, health and safety. Are you endangering their health and safety right now?" No, replies the cop. Health and safety, in its bureaucratic formulation, is a category that applies only to the body of the student, and to the student body as a collective mass. It removes student action from the realm of the rational and political and files it away in the overstuffed file cabinets of the Office of Student Conduct -- its object is the child, the minor, the unreasoning body that requires a firm hand to guide it. The police and the administration are therefore external to health and safety, inasmuch as the police presumes a sort of categorical autonomy. Health and safety, as perhaps unknowingly reported by the Daily Cal, is not the appropriate category for regulating police-on-student violence:
While trying to clear the steps, police yelled instructions to the crowd while pushing them with batons past the steps and a barricade was erected to hold the area. Pepper spray was employed by one officer who was struggling with a couple people to close the door, said UCPD Police Chief Mitch Celaya.
"It comes down to people having a right to assemble and to protest, but at some point, when the people have to move for safety reasons, people also have an obligation to follow instructions," Celaya said.
However, protesters and passersby said they felt the police used excessive force and that pepper spray and batons were used without sufficient warning.
Sophomore and member of the Student Worker Action Team Jessica Astillero said she was pepper sprayed after studying in the doorway when police told her to move. Before she could get out of the way, police started hitting people and one police officer was waiting with pepper spray, she said.
"I just thought they would tell us before they charged. We weren't expecting it," Astillero said Thursday.
UC Berkeley senior Pourya Khademi said he was on his way to class when he saw the protest efforts and went to see what was going on. The police showed up without warning and started moving, he said.
"The police hit us with the batons in the stomach with the tip of their stick. Absolutely full, full force," said Khademi, a professional violinist who said he now suffers injuries to his left arm, making it difficult to play.
Still, according to UCPD Lt. Alex Yao, the main concern during protests is to ensure the safety of everyone present, but also to ensure that rules and policies are being followed.
"Our main concern is the safety of all those involved, including the demonstrators and the crowd," Yao said. "At the same time, we must ensure that everyone's rights are being observed ... and that rules and policies are being complied with."
What governs police-on-student action -- and perhaps the administration's policy toward the student body -- is not health and safety (for that governs only student-on-student behavior, and mis-behavior) but safety and rules. Safety of the police officers, and rules for their targets. The police act with impunity, both on campus and off. As does the administration, for the rules do not apply to them in the same way. One of the most visible sites of this "rule of the arbitrary" is in the context of the university's disciplinary action against student protesters. But it is equally the case in other, more mundane contexts. Take Chancellor Birgeneau's letter from last Thursday, sent to the entire campus at 4:06 pm:
The campus is dealing with a health and safety issue in Wheeler Hall and the building is closed. All classes and events scheduled in Wheeler Hall for this afternoon/evening are cancelled until further notice.
That's the entire message. Several others have noted that classes were not disrupted by the protesters on the ledge but by the administration -- which unnecessarily closed the building -- and by the police -- which added a dangerous presence to the building. As DJ Ripley, who was teaching a class in Wheeler when the police invaded, wrote to her students the following day:
I later got an email from the chancellor saying there was a "health and safety issue" in Wheeler which necessitated closing it. This seems odd to me.  I also heard from a friend who was stopping by Wheeler (a volunteer medic) that police had pepper-sprayed and beaten protesters with batons while attempting to remove them from the area. (was that the health and safety issue? if so, I can think of a few ways short of closing the building that could have protected people)
The "health and safety issue" that caused the Chancellor to cancel classes and shut the building, however, has little to do with the police -- it is categorically impossible for the police to constitute a risk to the health and safety of students. It was the students on the ledge. In other words, the students' autonomous actions are by their very nature a risk to their own health and safety. The goal of the police, then, was to get them down off the ledge, back to their dormitories, back under the watchful eyes of their professors, inserted back into the grade economy, where the university's other technologies of control will presumably regulate their behavior. Health and safety is designed to protect not the student but the administration: health and safety is nothing more and nothing less than liability.

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