Police, protest, and spaces of power

by Rachel Brahinsky, University of California Berkeley

In this season of global occupations, the geographies of police violence have been on my mind. As we begin to unveil this new blog, I plan on taking the space of several posts to think through some of the big questions about space, identity, and power that have been emerging out of the occupy movement’s West Coast iteration, both on campus and in the streets. Here, I’m interested in the ways that we think about police violence as it plays out in different geographies against different bodies, particularly as those bodies are framed by the spaces in which they exist – as students or street people. These thoughts come out of my experience as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, and as a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, where key police-protestor encounters of the larger occupy movement generated global attention in the last several months.

One dynamic that has become apparent is that police violence against protestors – in which police have used the full range of their arsenal of purportedly non-lethal weapons including stun grenades, pepper spray, and tear gas – have acted as flash points for the broader movement, which has seemed to swell larger with each dramatic police escapade. This has been an ongoing tension: police violence has been shocking, and denounced by protestors; and yet with each over-step by cops, the movement gathered sympathy and fresh recruits (the question of whether we have seen ‘excessive force’ is thorny and is better left for another day – the very term implies that any force by police would have been acceptable). One demonstrators’ sign in Oakland summed it up: “Harm Us & We Will Multiply.”

This motto proved true when a raging night of violence against defenders of Occupy Oakland inspired a mass march on the Port of Oakland less than a week later; it was true at UC Berkeley when baton beatings drew in larger and larger throngs of students. The pattern repeated at UC Davis, when a hefty dose of lazily-poured but nevertheless extremely dangerous pepper spray drew thousands to strike and silently protest in front of the chancellor’s office, supported by people across the country who pitched in to mail tents to occupiers.

For some, the violence seemed especially poignant on campus, where police beatings and pepper sprayings of student protestors generated a special category of concern. At UC Berkeley in October, for example, the chant of “Stop Beating Students” rang loudly above the fray of batons ‘poking’ brutally at a chain of protestors, apparently uncaring that a dozen or more cameras were clicking and whirring, capturing the episode on film for a global audience. As I stood in the crowd, about ten feet away from the police, I admit that the chant felt powerful; it sent chills down my spine to witness riots cops tearing through the line of students and their allies, some wearing backpacks stuffed with term papers slung across their bodies as shields. And there was something about the claim that by being students the protestors were somehow particularly blameless, which rang true to me.

Occupy Oakland 99 Percent signs

On a human level, of course, any violence shocks. But there was something else going on in the formulation of students as innocent and perhaps particularly not-deserving of violent treatment. I wondered if the subtext was that we all could agree that to beat a student, to beat a protester employing her rights to speak out against the privatization of education, was somehow worse than other forms of violence. In the weeks after the event we all received many calls from people asking what they could do to ‘help those kids’. It struck me that the weight of repression had been framed as internally differentiated. Some violence was particularly deplorable – and the difference had a lot to do with the geographies in which it took place. And there is no question that the sight of the attack on unarmed students, linking arms next to the steps where Mario Savio spoke some of his most famous words, was dramatic and painful.

At the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the police violence, surveillance and domination that we live with every day in our cities – some of us more than others. Whether in the everyday managing of poor communities of color that often includes brutal deadly force, or in the increasing volume of police herding victims of the financial crisis off of city sidewalks – we are perpetually living in Foucault’s (1977) ‘carceral archipelago’. That we see these victims as differently deserving of our sympathies is telling about the value we place on particular bodies, spaces and pursuits. Education is noble. Survival – of the homeless, or of young men of color, for example – is perhaps imagined as less so.

When we allow these distinctions to be drawn, however, we play into the hands of a power structure that feeds on divisions between people. Indeed, one of the ways that the UC Berkeley administration (though it is hardly the top of the power structure) has justified removing student occupiers is through marshalling fear of ‘outside agitators.’ But if there are non-students involved in campus protests, who are these so-called outsiders to the public university? Those who can’t afford to keep up with escalating university fees; those whose childhood was framed by California’s Proposition 13-starved educational system (see Schrag, 2006), such that the dream of higher education remains distant; those whose access to the bounty of the metropolis has been circumscribed by racial segregation in our cities and suburbs. Violence against those bodies should be no less shocking.


Foucault M (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon

Schrag P (2006) California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment. Berkeley: University of California Press