The Grass Is Closed: an Occupy Cal protester, on police and power

Snip from a terrific long-read by Aaron Bady, aka zunguzungu, on his experience at the OWS-inspired "Occupy Cal" protests at UC Berkeley, after campus police violently attacked peaceful fellow student demonstrators (see video above).

At about 11:30 a.m. yesterday, a police officer told me and about eight other students that, and I quote, “the grass is closed.” We were going to sit under a tree and discuss things, and two police officers were watching us vigilantly to make sure we didn’t suddenly do something violent like try to put up tents. As we moved towards the tree, the first police officer stepped up and informed us that we could not walk from the broad concrete steps of Sproul Hall, where about a hundred people were sitting and talking, and sit on the grassy area just to the north of it. “The grass is closed,” she said.

If you meditate on these words until they become a mantra, you will learn some profound things about how police authority works. What could it possibly mean to declare that “the grass is closed”? Who could have the authority to say so? I had always considered that stretch of grass to be public; I’ve often been among the hundreds of students who eat their lunch there, every day, and 11:30 a.m. is a time of day when it is common to eat lunch. I have had conversations with other students sitting on that very grass, many times. Why was it that I could not do so now? Why had this stretch of grass suddenly become un-public and closed off? No signs said so, and no police tape marked it off. At the far end of that grassy area, in fact, several people were actually sitting on the grass. But those people were sitting there eating lunch. Because we were part of the group which was sitting on the steps of Sproul Hall, clearly, the grass had been declared off limits to us.

To make things more interesting, it immediately transpired that the other police officer had, in fact, already given them permission to sit on the grass. And in an instant, the arbitrariness of the rule was made evident and undeniable.

Read the rest: “The Grass Is Closed”: What I Have Learned About Power from the Police, Chancellor Birgeneau, and Occupy Cal (zunguzungu).


  1. Is the Unruh Act still in effect in California? I see some cops who should be denied some donut service tomorrow.

  2. WTF is up in the bay area? We had a student walkout at Occupy Houston and no cops were there. Sure,  it was much smaller than the Berkley event, but that’s because the cops have not  been for the most part assholes.

    Shitty cops just make Occupy grow fast and out of control. Chill cops help the movement focus on the real enemies. The police should not be the enemy.

  3. the two conclusions I have about American Policing since the beginning of the #Occupy movement: American cops are violent and fat.

  4. To be fair and balanced, I have an alternative experience. I recently drove to my local convenience store at 2.a.m. for a sugar fix. I was coming out of the store and a cop approached me and asked me if my dog was viscous. He was a really mean looking cop, about 6 1/2 feet, all muscle, crew cut, and square all over. My dog, a Bichon Frise, was in the truck. I was really shocked and dangerously suspicious. But he ended up playing with my dog for about five minutes and we (me, my dog, him and his partner) hung out in front of a cigar store for about half an hour talking about police dogs. He was a really fun guy, a total social butterfly.

    Now I know where all the nice cops are, on the graveyard shift…wonder why……

  5. Someone should tell that cowardly alcoholic jackass Frank Miller he’s mistaken: the Occupy movement *has* enlisted.  I don’t mean just the ones who served in the military; even the civilians are volunteers in what’s become an armed conflict.  These people are sitting in public places knowing they stand a chance of having their heads bashed in, their ribs broken, clubs or projectiles aimed at their skulls, by police who have been restructured to act as a military force and treat peaceful protest as terrorism.  I’m amazed at their courage every night.  And I’m amazed at the gall of chickenhawks who never enlist yet cheer for war and mock the Occupy movement for their convictions.

  6. They’re wearing identifying numbers on their helmets.  We shouldn’t rest until all citizens at that protest who participated in violence are prosecuted to the full extent of the Law, ‘shield’ or not be damned.  We have grievances and they will be redressed.  

  7. It’s the Bay Area, the same assholes in riot gear who’ll kill you for riding the train while brown/black.


  8. My alma matar.

    I probably would have found this exciting back circa 1989 when I was a freshman at UCB.

    Now it makes me want to cry.

    : (

  9. Why would whatever authorities who order the police to conduct these clearings feel so threatened by a gang of campers that they would have to attempt to scare them out of the public places they’ve assembled with violence? Why wouldn’t they just ignore them? Their message is that powerful, that they are so afraid? Apparently so.

    1. The threat to the police is loss of authoritah. You’re playing chess, they’re living paycheck to paycheck.

  10. I don’t live in CA. My brother used to work at UCB. Beautiful town, lovely campus, good people.

    Although it is a state university and presumably “public”, administration does have the right to protect and preserve the space. I don’t see what the big deal about putting up tents is. So why bother to fight it on the streets other than to escalate a situation? They weren’t prohibiting you from protesting. They were just saying no tents. What’s next, I can’t protest properly unless I’m doing donuts on my dirtbike?

    The tents are just a convenience item for protesters. Protests aren’t meant to be convenient. Show up with your sign and your tambourine. Do you thing. Set up shifts. Share your home with an out-of-towner. You want to occupy? Standing there is occupation. You don’t need a tent to prove your point unless your point is we’ll break rules, even reasonable ones.

    I’d be more impressed if they had a continuously running tai chi exercise going on and set a world record for it. I would be willing to take a cracked rib from a police baton to protect that.

  11. I have one question, maybe it’s a silly one but, will there be action ( legal, monetary ) against ANY of these “police” in lieu of so much evidence of them overstepping their powers and authority? (I can’t really refer to them as ‘officers’ now more like bullies)

  12. The cops would think twice about this crap if the people started shooting back, like they’re supposed to.

    Oh, don’t be a fool.  If people started shooting back, the cops *wouldn’t* think twice – they’d escalate from ‘less lethal’ to ‘very lethal’ in the blink of an eye.  

    And shortly thereafter, the National Guard would show up, and you’d see how well ‘armed hippies’ would fare against .50 cal. machine guns.

    Unless you’ve got AK-47s, RPGs, mortars, and the prospect of NATO air support, ‘shooting back’ is an incredibly stupid idea.

  13. Is it possible that someone at the university asked the police to keep the protestors off the grass, in order to protect it?  

    If I worked at the university, I wonder how I would write a workable, enforceable policy that would differentiate between the following situations:

    –  A hundred protestors occupying the grass for many weeks, turning it to dirt and mud

    – A half dozen protestors moving from paved area to grass to sit and talk

    – Four students not involved in the protest, sitting on the grass to eat lunch

    1. @ Scratcheee
      “-  A hundred protestors occupying the grass for many weeks, turning it to dirt and mud”

      When did grass become so precious and valuable that it needed protecting?

      1. James Baldwin wrote sixty years ago in an essay called “Nothing Personal” that Americans have always valued real estate more than we’ve valued other people.

      2. Ask any city, college campus, museum grounds, public park, or outdoor concert venue how much money they spend on building and maintaining grass covered areas for the public to enjoy.  It’s very expensive and requires a lot of work, mostly paid for and performed by the constituency of this particular protest.  

        If one wishes to completely ignore the contexts that exist in the real world, one could state the obvious fact that grass is not as important as people and that lawn care does not trump the safeguarding of human rights and dignity.  But if a group fighting for a cause begins with the premise that they can go wherever they want and do whatever they want in the name of their cause, then they are the ones who are having trouble with the line between fantasy and reality.

        1. Ask any city, college campus, museum grounds, public park, or outdoor concert venue how much money they spend on building and maintaining grass covered areas for the public to enjoy.  It’s very expensive and requires a lot of work, mostly paid for and performed by the constituency of this particular protest.

          I’d accuse you of astroturfing, but…

    2. JonS already said it but I’m amazed at the dissonance of your fantasy world from reality, as you dreamily spin by-laws for the rebellious rabble.
      Oh, how to formulate the perfect writ?…which must necessarily be instantly trampled into the ground as soon as there is need for the space as a protest area.

    3. Police derive their authority from the law they enforce, and not from  administrators who ask the police to break laws and ribs. 

      1. Thanks for making the point.

        The UCPD website has a link to the campus regulations, which they say “both protect and govern the rights of protest.”  I checked out the regulations.  They are reasonable, easy to understand, and legally enforceable.

  14. campus police are the thugs who can’t cut it on a real city police force. that should give you pause letting them “police” your children.

  15. EXCELLENT ESSAY. Thanks for posting.  I especially like this point about the Berkeley Chancellor’s statement justifying their use of force:”Birgeneau and his executive administrators are hiding behind meaningless language rather than talk openly and honestly about what everyone who was there or has seen those videos knows to be true: the UC will hurt you if you obstruct them or challenge their authority, even nonviolently. Free speech is a function of free thinking, and on the campus of free speech, Birgeneau should be free to say and think what he pleases, even if what he says is that those who do not obey will be beaten into submission. But let us hear him say that, if that’s what he believes. Let him admit and stand behind the decision he has made.”

  16. It seems like occupying the area in front of Chancellor’s office would do much more to make a statement about the 1%.  Then when the violence comes, it’s clear what is being defended.

  17. And lest I come across as just whining, I have sent letters to Governor Brown, Lt. Gov Newsom, and Loni Hancock, the area’s CA Senate representative to ask them to take action against the office of the chancellor.  The breach of american rights by the UC police should be taken incredibly seriously.  

    I thank all the protestors for standing for me in these protests.

  18. “ just another way of saying that when “intransigent” individuals refuse to acknowledge the university’s authority, the administration won’t be able to exercise its authority, so it will therefore need to exercise its authority. This is exactly as tautological and contradictory a line of “reasoning” as it sounds, a rhetorical snake eating its own tail.”

    This is the highlight of the essay, and primarily the issue with administrative reactions to protests. “They’re protesting our methods! Shut them up!”

  19. “But if a group fighting for a cause begins with the premise that they can go wherever they want and do whatever they want in the name of their cause, then they are the ones who are having trouble with the line between fantasy and reality.”

    This seems to be more than a bit of a strawman argument, though. I don’t see the student protesters as saying that they can go wherever they want and do whatever they want. What they’re saying instead is that if they engaged in the kinds of protests that you would prefer that they did, they would continue to be ignored.

    I’m an alumnus of a UC myself, and 20 years ago, they had many of the same problems: constant cutbacks and fee hikes. If anything, after 20 years of the kinds of protests that you would support, these problems seem to have gotten vastly worse-which is part of the reason why I’m sympathetic to the protesters.

    1. Look at what the writer of this essay said himself:  he and a few others “were going to sit under a tree and discuss things.”  Does this match up with the video above?  Does it match up with your implication that the protesters want to raise visibility by doing something other than a strictly legal assembly that a square like me would support?

      1. Do you imagine yourself a paladin, valiantly defending the right of the state to create classes of citizen?

  20. Our emperors have no clothes. Our emperors have no shame. These governors, mayors, city councils, police chiefs and street cops of America need to realize that it is NOT UP TO THEM whether or not Americans peaceably gather, protest, discuss, or demonstrate. It’s up to a document called the US CONSTITUTION. You can beat us and arrest us and tear-gas us, you can try to “permit” us to death….but you can’t kill an idea. You can’t keep down a people’s hopes and dreams for a better life…..a life with dignity and freedom….for us, and for our kids. With OWS America has found it’s voice, and that voice demands fairness and justice – for ALL. This land IS our land! AND WE WANT IT BACK! We want our LIVES back! We want our FUTURE back! But it’s much more than words…. it’s much more than politics..­.. it’s your LIFE, and how you want to live it. Find a quiet place somewhere, and consider this: Each of us has only one brief life….on­e chance….­one roll of the dice….and many choices. The time has come to choose….to risk…and to act. If not now…then when? If not you, then….who? You DO have the power my friend….and the choice IS yours. Don’t let your dreams die….

  21. The United States of America was founded on the fundamental right to yell, “HELL NO!!” at authorities. John Hancock’s signature was the largest on the Decoration of Independence for a reaso, goddammit ! He is now known as , “The Man Who Invented the All Caps Reply”.

  22. To all who are criticizing the protestors for violating law/university rules–that’s the **point**. Civil disobedience inherently involves breaking the law. You can have a protest that isn’t civil disobedience (i.e. apply for a permit, hold signs an express your disapproval). However these people were making a point about America’s legal and political systems. They should expect to get arrested (though such arrests starkly reveal hierarchies of power); they should not have to expect to be beaten.

    1.  I am responsible to make my restitution for my infractions. A baton is not a tool of restitution for minor civil infractions. A ticket is. 

  23. the peoples pig is a sandwich cart in portland, OR. anyone know why this photo is connected with this article?  besides that the sandwiches there are fantastic?

  24. The First Amendment is dead.
    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;  – DEAD Just ask the Native Americans and Rastafarians

    or abridging the freedom of speech, – DEAD see Free speech zones

    or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,  DEAD – see #OWS

    and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. – DEAD judicial immunity

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