Rewording the March 3 events

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The inhabitants of George Orwell's Oceania communicate with "Newspeak," a language working, by way of euphemism, to quash free thought and consolidate totalitarian ideology.

When on the afternoon of March 3 student protesters took to the roof of Wheeler Hall to challenge repeated cuts to their education coupled with repeated "fee" increases (in "Truespeak," don't we really mean "tuition"?) Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who, in my experience, has never appeared afraid of email prolixity, issued to students and faculty the following two-sentence pronouncement: "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."

The email is both deceptive and insulting. It is a clear sign of the disconnect between the university's privileged administrators, answerable to no democratic process, and the university's students, upon whose backs our bloody budgets continue to be carved.

The email is inaccurate because administrators and police, and not students, made the choice to close down Wheeler Hall. When there was a real threat to public safety, this came from the police themselves, who (we all know) have upon several recent occasions beaten students taking action against the administration. We are all familiar with their barricades and batons: ironic symbols of "free speech" at Berkeley these days. (I say nothing about the UCPD officer who pointed a loaded gun at protesters in November.) I must assume that Birgeneau is an intelligent man with a strong command of the English language. As such, I must also assume that he was intent on deceiving the Berkeley community by sparsely referring to a "health and safety issue." For those unaware of the protests, the email works against awareness. For those aware, it implies that the protesters were solely responsible for the "health and safety" issue, for classes being cancelled and office hours cut short (as were mine, by a bevy of officers).

Regent Gavin Newsom certainly comprehends the situation this way, as evidenced by an interview published March 31, in The Daily Californian. Therein, Newsom declares that he "completely understand(s)" student frustration but that "when people start locking themselves in and denying other people access that are innocent in terms of the debate and when people start to incite behavior that can actually start tipping and losing support, that's when I just want to pause and say, 'Hey guys, you don't need to go this far.'"

Thanks for the fatherly advice, Regent Newsom. But you see, it was the police who locked everybody out, not the protesters. It was the police who "den(ied) other ('innocent') people access." Moreover, it was certainly the police who "start(ed) to incite behavior ... tipping" students not against the protesters but rather against the police and the administration. From widespread local and national news reports, it was clear to me that the administration embarrassed itself that day: the protesters held the high ground at night, and were celebrated by their fellow students. The victory proudly adorned the front page of the next morning's Daily Californian. With such extensive coverage, I expected more words from our Chancellor. I guess that he was content with his two-line, absurdly euphemistic dismissal.

My second point: The email insulted the entire UC student population. These two lines indicating a "health and safety issue" boast a loud and clear, not to mention arrogant, dismissal of genuine student concerns.

You would be amiss to assume that these concerns are not shared broadly by UC students, their hard-earned money (or their parents') now the preferred salve for budgetary slashings. You would be amiss to assume that Berkeley students look to such protesters with any resentment. No, our students are intelligent enough not to confuse the short with the long term. I saw them (not anarchists, not vainglorious attention-getters, but hard-working, courageous and angry - can you blame them? - young men and women compelled to support their own) turn increasingly against the police who provoked them with their threats and barricades, and against the privileged regents.

No, neither you, Chancellor Birgeneau, nor you, Regent Newsom (a millionaire), "completely understand(s)" what students and their families endure to fund UC educations. How could you understand the single mother struggling against service cuts to graduate or the 19-year-old with a full course working 20 hours per week to cover "fees?"

Back to these silly but pernicious euphemisms. The "organizational restructuring" plan that the UC is now trying to implement in response to budget cuts has been placed under the banner of "Operational Excellence." When the reality of employees losing their jobs, families faced with increasing insecurity, more labor and less returns, is veiled by the banner of "Operational Excellence" (do not veil California's and UC's shame!), the prospect of the near and long-term future can perhaps best be described as "doubleplusungood."

Tags: ROBERT BIRGENEAU, GAVIN NEWSOM, UCPD, MARCH 3


Brendan Prawdzik is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of English. Reply to [email protected]



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