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Whose University? Our University!

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on November 25, 2009 3 Comments

Along with thousands of UC (University of California) students, staff, and faculty members, I participated in the recent massive system-wide three-day strikes organized to protest the proposed 32% hikes in tuition fees. Apart from a move to cancel classes, the strikes included a particularly inspiring production of Waiting for Lefty, protest marches, Open University, trash-ins, and other events. The Wheeler standoff, of course, ended up being the most talked about media event, eventually leading to the arrest of 41 individuals. At the time of this writing, there are thousands of news stories circulating about the events of last week. The new week has brought with it a rally against police brutality, a candlelight vigil against police brutality, and a sit-in at the University of California Office of the President (UCOP).

Campus is slowly returning to normal, though some students, faculty, and staff are sporting the red armbands for solidarity, and media helicopters are often circling overhead. As I went by Wheeler yesterday, I was overwhelmed by a plethora of emotions, particularly an acute sense of loss. I remembered a campus visit to Berkeley in 2005, a year before I started here as a student: as I stepped onto the campus for the very first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging I had never expected to feel. The quirky, simple buildings; the tall, leafy trees; the creek that barely made a sound as it swooshed over tiny pebbles; the sense of being connected to history…everything felt familiar, it felt like…like home. And then, Monday, as I walked past Wheeler, I felt this aching sense of loss. It was as if someone, or something, had died there. In Hindi, I would have said, “मुझे अपने घर में महमान बना दिया” (I was made into a guest in my own home.)

I cannot easily describe the violence I felt in being outsided by the barricades at Wheeler on Friday. I was there approximately from noon till 8:30 pm, standing there cold in jeans, a black cardigan and raincoat, the intermittent drizzle like the slow drumbeats of a quiet war. The whole experience was surreal: this was my campus, my building, my space, and…it was as if someone was keeping me from my own home. Others around me were feeling equally vexed. The chants that rose into the misty air were a clear commentary on those frustrations: “WHOSE UNIVERSITY? OUR UNIVERSITY!” “WHOSE HOME? OUR HOME!” “WHOSE BUILDING? OUR BUILDING!” The sight of dozens of menacing police officers decked out in riot gear, brandishing batons and tear gas guns(?), preventing the gathered crowds from getting anywhere near the building, made us feel as if someone had suddenly made us homeless, dispossessed us of our own land. Some young girls chanted out at the police officers, “You’re cute! You’re cute! Take off that riot suit!” That chant was greeted with nervous laughter, one quickly dissolving in an atmosphere of tension.

And now, as I look at Wheeler, I must somewhat avert my gaze, because it is too painful-to think this is where I was othered, made a stranger in my own home.

In a letter sent out day before, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau stated that

The images [of police brutality] that have appeared on YouTube and videos do not reflect our values and those of our entire campus community and may not accurately reflect the whole sequence of events.  As are many of you who have written to us, we are distressed at the portrayal in the media of our campus.  Our priority in dealing with the demonstration was to provide for the safety and wellbeing of the entire campus community.

I understand that University officials needed to control the growing crowds and deal swiftly with the events unraveling at Wheeler: however, the panicked decision to exercise a show of power by cordoning off Wheeler with so many police officials, armed with this and that, is one that the University officials are clearly already regretting.This is proving to be nothing short of a public relations nightmare, and the wounds created from this event will take years, if not decades, to heal.

It is not the first time I have felt “outsided” or “othered” on our campus. However, this was the first time I felt it so violently, so viscerally. And it didn’t take a word to accomplish that. It took a spectacle of force, a row of gleaming police officers with their batons and tear gas guns at the ready. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

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3 Responses to “Whose University? Our University!”

  1. Nora on: 25 November 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Powerful stuff, woman…beautifully and vividly written…thank you for the words, images, constant inspiration. You rock and I’m proud to call you “friend” (say in Young Frankenstein grunt, please, to offset the seriousness of this comment and the post).
    Enjoy getting Scrabbled tonight!

  2. Emily Gleason on: 25 November 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Thank you, Usree. Powerful and painful.

  3. Aaminah on: 1 December 2009 at 3:18 pm

    I can’t stop thinking about how these images reflect our varied perceptions of what occurred. And Birgeneau’s comment “The images…may not accurately reflect the whole sequence of events” is jarring for me. Can these images reflect the whole sequence of events? Perhaps they don’t but for me they represent what I saw felt and heard. The pain of being shut out alarms me still.

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