Shifting Focus

The Occupy movement has been the center of the media’s attention since its New York-based inception in September. More recently, it has inspired colleges to start their own branch of the movement, protesting continual increases in tuition and the relentless cutbacks of state funding.

The protests have been a major focus of media outlets, not for the radical changes they hope to realize, but for the violent conflict between police officers and students. On Nov. 9, protesters at Occupy Cal were brutally attacked by police officers. What started as peaceful protesting at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza quickly escalated into violence as students attempted to set up tents for the night. Widely circulated YouTube videos, with view counts of almost 800,000, depicted officers from both the UC police and the Alameda County sheriff’s department attacking protesters with batons, jabbing them in their stomachs and dragging demonstrators by the hair as they tried to prevent the officers from tearing down their camp. Originally condoned by the UC Berkeley administration after the videos went viral, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau sent a campuswide email condemning the actions the officers took and deemed them “disturbing.” This past Friday, similarly violent YouTube videos were uploaded, depicting protesters at Occupy UC Davis being doused with military-grade pepper spray by officers as they sat quietly around their campsite with linked arms. Protesters were warned that they needed to dismantle their tents and though some did, a few stayed to protest the removal of the site. The footage of the aftermath has fueled the media frenzy surrounding the violence on campuses.

Many are calling for the resignaton of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who instructed police officers to break up the protesters. Another sobering and viral video shows Katehi walking to a meeting surrounded by a block-long gauntlet of silent students, now described as “Chancellor Kathehi’s Walk of Shame.” Though these dramatic turn of events have put the spotlight on the Occupy Colleges protests in the media, unfortunately the majority of the attention has been focused on the controversy of police involvement. Granted, media attention is significant for any movement — it gives credence to the protest and motivates people to pay attention to what’s going on, but this shouldn’t be what the Occupy Colleges movement is about. But in light of these current events, the Occupy Colleges movement is quickly becoming about the abuse of campus authority, not the educational reform at the heart of the movement.

The attention Occupy Cal and UC Davis have now is important, but what’s more important is making actual change. As students fight for change in the California education system, focus should be placed on the education system, not what is going on with the police. A major criticism of the Occupy movement is its lack of cohesiveness and priorities, but to enforce the desired changes, a specific set of mandates is crucial. Occupy Cal recently came out with a list of demands, but many of them center on the excessive police force and arrests they’ve experienced lately. They call for charging the officers responsible for the violence and the immediate resignation of the UC Berkeley chancellor in order to be replaced by someone democratically chosen by students, faculty, and staff. Some of Occupy Cal’s demands do concentrate on issues faced by students everywhere, such as the reversal of fee hikes, cuts and layoffs to their 2009 levels and the privatization of public education. These are the original changes of the movement before videos went viral and the media narrowed in on the police-protester conflicts.

These are the changes that are going to matter in the long run, but with the majority of the emphasis of Cal’s list placed on their own fight against the police, the list simply feeds the media’s fixation with the protest violence and arrests. The police brutality experienced at Cal and UC Davis should and needs to be addressed, but by putting this bulk of the movement’s efforts on the problems encountered at the protests, the point of the movement — to change the mounting fee increases and bring higher education back to a level everyone can afford — is lost.