This week marks one year since a Latine student was stopped by a Security Patrol Officer at Berkeley Way West while allegedly not wearing a mask during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week also marks one year in which our department has failed to genuinely acknowledge, let alone substantively act, to redress the harm done to the student.
On the contrary, leadership in the Berkeley School of Education, with the exception of one individual, has systematically attempted to silence any attempt to address the racial violence that occurred. At every turn, department leadership have taken steps to protect their reputation, not having once inquired about the welfare of the student.
The gratuitous involvement of police to control the bodies of people of color is an age-old tactic of white supremacy. Even when it doesn’t inflict physical harm, it carries the power of intimidation, involves enduring trauma and forces the target to experience the precarious threat that a single miscalculation could result in police brutality or even death.
In 2020, the city of San Francisco approved legislation that made racially motivated 911 calls a hate crime. The city recognized the physical and emotional violence inflicted on people of color when police are called for frivolous matters.
We are all too familiar with local and national cases when police were needlessly called on people of color, whether they were birdwatching, swimming, barbecuing or even entering their own homes.
San Francisco’s ordinance, known as the Caution Against Racially and Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act, or the CAREN Act, is meant to provide some measure of protection for people of color subject to such intimidation and violence. It is also meant to penalize those who exploit public resources to perpetuate their bigotry.
It is a shame that measures such as the CAREN Act are necessary. The forms of violence covered by the CAREN Act occur because the perpetrators don’t see their targets as fellow human beings. Instead, histories of racism make them perceive people of color as threats who need to be controlled by state-sanctioned violence, as targets who are not even worth the dignity of a simple conversation.
UC Berkeley requires policy that explicitly protects people of color from being targeted by others through the deployment of police. There also needs to be a policy that protects those who attempt to name and address such violence.
Even with the institutional protections I have as a professor, department leadership has not only ignored my appeal to address the racial climate that led to this incident, they have also sought to intimidate me into silence.
Ironically, the one tangible action the department has taken after the incident beyond following regular protocol involves proposed policy that would make it more difficult to address racialized incidents in the Berkeley School of Education. I can only imagine the pressures faced by students, staff and early-career faculty who attempt to name the racial violence they experience on this campus, especially through the misuse of the police.
The lasting impact of this incident, however, will be felt most by the student. Every single day the student walks into our modern, glass-clad building at Berkeley Way West, he must feel the racist legacies of our nation. Even as he walks by posters that boast the racial diversity of the department, our building cannot be a “safe space” for him. Instead, these hallowed halls will be a site of trauma, magnified by the callousness of our department leadership.
No day will go by without him having to expend mental and emotional energy to ensure his own safety — energy that others have the luxury to devote to their academic pursuits or leisurely activities. There will not be a moment when he can walk through the corridors, assured that he doesn’t have to encounter the person who called the police on him or the department leadership that ultimately enabled such racist behavior.
A few weeks after the incident, I was called into a meeting by the department leadership. After accusing me of “giving the school a bad name,” I was told I was making too much of the matter because “it wasn’t a George Floyd incident.”
My heart wrenches each time I think about these words coming from our department leader. It signals a profoundly warped measure used by leaders to respond to violence. It communicates a normalization that members of our campus are expected to live with everyday violence.
I swing between anger, frustration and sorrow to think that after a full year, the student has not experienced a modicum of justice. We are Berkeley and it is 2023, but this nation’s violent and timeworn tools of white supremacy are still alive among us.
Change in UC policy to protect students, staff, faculty and visitors of color against racially motivated police calls is essential, but it won’t suffice on its own. We need leaders who have the courage to take ethical stances and enact policies that promote people and their well-being.