By Jonathan Haeber
Tonight I saw a video which reminded me of a moment eight years ago. I saw an officer of the UCPD, an officer at the alma mater for which I have always held high respect, senselessly beat a nonviolent woman standing her ground. The part that truly discourages me, however, is that I know the UCPD from personal experience, and that wasn’t the first time they resorted to such heavy-handed tactics. I was once part of the UCPD’s lowly student ranks of Community Service Officers; we earned a measly-but-much-appreciated $11 an hour as we paid our way through college. My job there was a much-needed source of funding for education.
Despite my love for UC Berkeley and all it has given me in life, I can’t help but be critical of its police department. It’s a department which, I know from personal experience, DOES NOT respect free speech, despite being located at the hearth and birthplace of free speech in America.
The beginning of this story goes back seven years: In 2003, innocent civilians were being firebombed in Baghdad by U.S. jets. The New York Times called such bombing “brilliant,” but I was among a small group of students at Berkeley who considered it nothing of the sort. It was unjust, terrorizing, wrong (not ‘brilliant’!) And we occupied the administration building in recognition of our heartfelt celebration of the free speech for which Berkeley is known. From the beginning, we were presented as the ‘radicals’, the ‘liberals.’ How radical is it to voice a reasonable opinion against senseless destruction and violence? Does “shock and awe” only belong to the saber-rattling jingoists? Many of us weren’t even liberals; we were libertarians, social liberals – maybe – but nothing of the drug-imbibing, commune-championing, hemp-loving, redistribution-believing hippies that Fox News would like you to think. We simply believed that Iraqi civilians didn’t have to die (115,000 and counting to this day).
We walked into Sproul Hall, sat down, and chained our arms. It was a peaceful day in Berkeley, but far across the Atlantic Ocean F-16s were screeching through the sky about to deploy missiles. We felt helpless but hopeful. After all, we were part of an international movement of millions who voiced our disagreement with the Neoconservative agenda. We saw right through the doublespeak of Condy Rice, Donald Rumsfield, and Dick Cheney. We felt like patriots. We felt like we were helping others realize the exigency of the moment. Then the UCPD came in, along with the Vice Chancellor of the University. Leave or be arrested, they said. We stayed. “We certainly recognize your right to express your opinions about the war,” the Vice Chancellor said. “For those of you who decide you want to be arrested, we ask that you continue to do this in a nonviolent way.”
So we stayed nonviolent. The police put “pain holds” on many of us. We were dragged and carried away by two to three police at a time. One-hundred and nineteen of us were arrested that day. I felt good to be an American. But the unfortunate part is that it would be the first and last time I would put my future on the line for a political belief, for I now know that our constitutional right to free speech is not being protected as it should – and lifelong consequences can come of it..
A few days later, I was called by administrators at the police department. I was to lose my job. Later, charges of trespassing (602L) were dropped, but that didn’t matter to the upper tiers of the UCPD. The Chief of Police, the lieutenants, and the captains in the department believed me to be another “liberal.” I had to go.
I came in, gave my keys to the Lieutenant Mitchell Celaya, and said goodbye to my job. Later, Chief Victoria Harrison apologized for the whole ordeal, admitting that there were many former military veterans in the department who didn’t like what I did. The damage was done. I lost my job for a political opinion, and I felt less proud to be an American the day that happened.
Flash forward seven years and I encounter the video. I recognize some of the silhouettes of the men. I’m sure some of the men swinging billy clubs are the same men who put the pain holds on me that day in March of 2003, the same men who worked with me before I lost my job. It’s amazing how little free speech is supported in this country today, some would say even less than it was in 2003. These bottom-up movements across the world, to me, are an effort to regain voice. For much too long, the average voter has felt as if her vote doesn’t matter. Our representatives answer to the “other” public – the 1%. It’s about time that our representatives in congress represent; otherwise, it’s about time that they lose their job too.