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Davis, California

Friday, May 24, 2024

Column: Limiting free speech

UC Berkeley was the site of the famous Free Speech Movement in the 1960s – a movement that was triggered by the administration’s refusal to allow political advocacy on campus. As a “daughter institution” of UC Berkeley, we here at UC Davis should feel an especially close kinship to those historic events. Indeed, many of us are regular participants in the current ongoing protests at the “mother campus,” and this brings a greater sense of unity to the broader movement.

I was there last Friday and experienced a surreal scene that I will never forget. The intent of the protesters was to march from building to building, all around the campus, and catch people’s attention by chanting, distributing posters or perhaps writing chalk messages on sidewalks. I caught up with the group late and was immediately disturbed by what I saw: over a dozen police officers and sheriff’s deputies following the protesters around in an ominous fashion, with at least two officers filming people at point-blank range with video cameras.

It looked more like stalking than policing to me. I asked a supervising officer who was wearing a long cloth trench coat what the justification was for this type of police action, and his answer was: “This is the way we monitor protests.” That was a transparent lie. Granted, I saw at least one person using chalk to write a political message on an interior wall, and this was an iffy tactic that might have crossed the line. But if so, a simple citation for violating a minor infraction should have been the maximum police response allowed, if that. What these officers and sheriff’s deputies were attempting to do was stop the entire protest march, and thereby squelch free speech, by intimidating people with their video cameras and their close-up and in-your-face menacing presence.

During one moment in a small courtyard, with most of the protesters inside the building, there were more police officers than protesters present. The sky was overcast and there was light sprinkling coming down. It was a gloomy and half-spooky scene. A verse from one of T.S. Eliot’s poems came to mind: “Footfalls echo in the memory/ Down the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened/ Into the rose-garden…” Here I was witnessing the police, at the direction of the UC administration, attempting to steer us in a direction that should only remain in the imagination – toward a nightmarish dystopia ruled by plutocrats (in our situation, UC Regents) who have little regard for truth or justice.

The call on the flyer simply read: “Join us on the Sproul steps at 10 a.m. to show support, mobilize and march around the campus to demonstrate our needs, our power and our unity to … create a better world.” What is it about that call that would provoke the administration into attempting to stop it by ratcheting up the police presence? What the UC Regents fear, most likely, is the power of unity on the part of those who oppose them. The only way they can continue the hegemonic status quo is by resorting to divide-and-conquer methods. They are panicking and falling back on desperation measures. They fear losing face. They fear the exposure of how they have exploited others and society by leveraging their positions in the UC Board of Regents to engage in counterproductive business deals, as uncovered by investigative journalist Peter Byrne.

Like other lines in Eliot’s poem, I felt like I was “at the still point of the turning world” caught between “un-being and being.” I left the scene feeling convinced that the major turning point of the movement has been reached. With a new governor, Jerry Brown, and new lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, both taking their seats soon on the UC Board of Regents, things are bound to change. California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg issued a statement the day before blasting the current regents for the new fee hike, and a recent survey released by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that 74 percent of Californians believe that state funding to higher education should be increased.

Let’s celebrate this Thanksgiving as a holiday to celebrate unity among family, friends and allies and the bountiful “harvest” that shared purpose and cooperative effort provides. The biggest battle is ahead: democratizing the UC Board of Regents and turning those positions into elected positions. When that happens, a new era of higher education will have officially begun.

Reach BRIAN RILEY at bkriley@ucdavis.edu.


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