Let’s Start Using Much Older Weapons: Speech, Diplomacy, Conversation

The Doctor:  Professor Watson, any being that can exist let alone thrive inside a nuclear pile is hardly likely to be deterred by a few primitive missiles.
Professor Watson:  But they’re the most powerful missiles we have!
The Doctor:  On your standards, perhaps.  I think we should try much older weapons.
Sarah Jane Smith:  Like?
The Doctor:  Speech?  Diplomacy?  … Conversation?
— Doctor Who, “The Hand of Fear”

This demonstration I remember quite well.  Spring Quarter 1986.  UCLA.  Anti-apartheid.  As part of our continued efforts to convince the Regents of the University of California to divest from Apartheid South Africa, we followed the lead of other protesters on campuses across the country, most notably UC Berkeley, and erected wooden shanties.  The shanty became the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement because so many black South Africans, living under the weight of impoverishment, dwelled in them.  (Sadly, as this 2005 photo demonstrates, shanty towns continue to be no stranger to South Africa.)

Berkeley students created rather small shanties that stood maybe five feet tall at best, quickly built structures that could fill a whole plaza in a short space of time.  They were in essence tents made out of wood.

Being Angelenos, in the shadow of Hollywood, we were a bit more grandiose.  Our shanties stood about eight feet tall and were about 8′ x 8′ square inside.  Each had a roof, walls, a door, and I think even a window.  The only thing missing was a flower box.  We built three of these edifices over the course of a weekend in a service yard next to the Art Building — that way if any one saw them, they’d think they were just another art project.  I think we intended to make more, but given the size and the amount of materials we had, three was our limit.

We hauled them late one Sunday evening — those mothers were heavy — from the far end of North Campus to Royce Hall and left them overnight on the portico facing the quad.  How they went undetected that night I’ll never know, but the following Monday morning they were ready for their close up.  There they were, three wooden shanties in the middle of Royce Quad, the very symbol of the campus, and us decorated around them playing hacky sack and listening to reggie.  Berky Nelson, the student liaison officer for campus who dealt with us at many a demonstration, came over and summarized out encampment thus:  “This won’t fly.”

Shanty town UCLA lasted for the balance of the day, but then the police came to break it up.  They torn up two of our buildings and had designs on the third.  I sat in the last shanty, along with some fellow travelers, peacefully defending our building and the movement it symbolized.  Meanwhile, a couple of others from our group hurriedly negotiated with Berky, some others from his office, and UCPD.  We saved the third shanty, but agreed to move it off the hallowed ground of Royce Quad to the relatively more palatable Bruin Plaza in front of Ackerman Student Union.  There it sat for the rest of the quarter.  We took turns staffing the shanty, providing info on South Africa and apartheid during the day and sleeping in it at night.  Crisis averted.

The police did not topple the shanty on top of us as we anxiously sat inside it.  We did not get clubbed.  We did not get pepper-sprayed like so many weeds in a field of grass.  The powers that be used much older weapons to defuse the situation:  speech, diplomacy, conversation.  In looking at the UC Davis pepper spraying, and the UC Berkeley clubbing that occurred a week earlier, I’m struck by the apparent dearth of UC administrators on hand to negotiate and talk.  Maybe they did and it went nowhere.  In light of what transpired, however, I think waiting and talking longer is preferable to clubbing students or hosing them with toxins.

No demo or civil disobedience action on a college campus should happen without the presence of administration.  They should be calling the shots and doing whatever it takes to avert disasters like what occurred at Davis and Berkeley.  Consider it a part of the educational process.  It’s hard.  It’s frustrating.  But ultimately it’s just the right thing to do.

© 2011, gar. All rights reserved.

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