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Davis, California

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Guest opinion: Private eyes: real surveillance, false denials from administration

Over the last year, the UC Davis administration has pursued an extensive program to place staffers in and around student-worker protest. They have done so not, as you might expect, to join in the struggle against indecent cuts and backdoor privatization, but to deliver surveillance on participants.

This “Activism Response Team” was, for example, trained to “collaborate with police,” and advised by university counsel on negotiating possible rights violations of those undergoing surveillance. When asked directly whether they were supplying information to the administration, ART members denied this. Once caught, the chancellor assured us that – suddenly! – she would like to make public what in truth had become public only via the legal compulsion of the Freedom of Information Act.

The chancellor’s justification (see “Embracing Student Activism,” March 14) has two main claims, strikingly different in tenor. First, the paternalistic hymn of “we have your best interests at heart.” Second, the childish denial that resembles getting caught cheating on an exam, mumbling that you “could have done a better job of educating the campus community” regarding your scheme – and would now prove your virtue by publishing your crib notes.

Bracket for a moment the careful studies by civil rights lawyers demonstrating that use of confidential informants is harmful to communities as it is legally ineffective. Instead, let us take seriously the chancellor’s two claims.

The program purports “to ensure [demonstrators’] safety and the safety of those in their path.” We should therefore ask: have demonstrators at UCD harmed anyone, in or out of their path? No. Not a soul. We might add, with some confusion, that no one has been “in their path.”

But this is not quite true. The administration has repeatedly placed the police in this path, has effectively stood there with them. Yet only protesters have been thereby placed in harm’s way. Across the UC system, as students and workers have organized against the unequal devolution of austerity, all incidents of bodily injury have been meted out by the police, none by protesters. The feverish fantasy of dangerous protesters is just that. Contrarily, the police have exercised their monopoly on violence, threatened and real, at the administration’s behest. Last fall a UCI police officer leveled a loaded pistol at an unarmed protester. Naturally he claimed to have been threatened. The video shows otherwise.

When cops draw, people die. We are lucky Officer Kemper didn’t harm anyone on that occasion. Others have been less fortunate in their encounters with clubs, Tasers and pepper spray. If the chancellor were sincere in her quest to “ensure everyone’s safety,” she would not be organizing workshops to collaborate with police – she would be working to disarm and escort them off campus. One hopes she will learn this lesson without lawsuits or loss of life.

What of the chancellor’s oft repeated, rarely demonstrated passion for “transparency,” her assurance there’s “absolutely nothing nefarious or under-handed” in this program? The administration has long depended on generosity regarding such claims, generosity regarding the fiction of their supposedly shared ideals and open minds – as contrary evidence has mounted ceaselessly. This latest tender can only be greeted with incredulity.

If sincere, she would expose all participants unhesitatingly – not those already exposed, but current. She would issue them identifying tags, avoiding both the fact and appearance of covert surveillance. But the functions detailed in the documents – reporting on meetings, informing President Yudof about resistance in advance of Regent fee hikes, etc. – would then become impossible, as the meetings wouldn’t countenance known informants. People would go elsewhere. The surveillance operations, by their own logic, require an absence of transparency. This will continue, obviously.

There is little satisfaction in recognizing that the chancellor’s denials are disingenuous and nonsensical. We already know there is a convenient public rhetoric about safety and transparency, and an inconvenient private truth about the deployment of security state “protocols.” We know there is a public celebration of open discussion and shared community, and a private course of action to be implemented implacably – by use of surveillance and armed cops, as needed.

In short, we know – we must finally know, and stop pretending otherwise – that there is a public and a private vision of the university. They are not compatible visions. The upper administration is committed to one and pays lip service to the other as a neutralizing scheme. It keeps private its machinations toward an increasingly privatized education: declining in quality and accessibility for the poor and vulnerable, mean-spiritedly inhospitable to its public workers.

But there is a public vision which students and workers actually believe in and will fight for. It could not be clearer that private tactics will be deployed to suppress this reckoning. It could not be clearer that these are the terms of the antagonism. It could not be clearer that it will take a fight.

JOSHUA CLOVER is a UC Davis professor of English literature.


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