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Governor Schwarzenegger Should Wash his Mouth Out with Soap

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Governor Schwarzenegger should wash his mouth out with soap. Seriously.

When I was a kid I was over at a friend's house when he said a bad word and his mother washed his mouth out with soap. It was impressive. I don't think my friend said that word again for a long time. Now California's action-figure governor is acting childishly, and he too needs to take some measure to ensure that he never again speaks as he did this week. He owes it to the university students of his state, and indeed to everyone in this country that welcomed his immigration here.

Here is what he did: he called two students of mine terrorists. Specifically, he called their protest against the recent 32% tuition increase at the University of California a "type of terrorism." Really. I'm not kidding.

Shame on him.

Allow me to introduce the "terrorists," Julia Litman-Cleper and Laura Thatcher. Both of them have been students of mine at the University of California at Davis. They are wonderful students: thoughtful, inquisitive, respectful, and supportive of their peers. They are not loud, strident voices. In fact, they are both noticeably quiet as students go. They are active in their departments and in the civics of their campus.

On Monday of last week a group of students from campuses around the University of California "occupied" Wheeler Hall at UC Berkeley and announced their intention to host a week of lectures on things like the history of public education in the state, the finances of the University of California, and so on. They also planned for music, study time, and lots of opportunity for students to sit and talk and work through their thoughts about what is happening to public education in California and what they might do about it.

What they were doing was technically illegal, as the university police informed them, but the students made clear that they would not obstruct any of the university activities that were ongoing in the building. A tacit agreement developed between the police and the students, to the point that one night police entered the building and told a group of students that they in the wrong room and ordered them to move to one of several other rooms they indicated were designated for the protest.

During the course of the week, several UC faculty members came to Wheeler and gave lectures hosted by the protesters. In the eyes of students, faculty are the real authority on campus. Students rarely deal with campus police or administrators, but they deal with faculty every day. Faculty give them grades, by which their careers as students stand or fall. If the police aren't bothering them and faculty are showing up to give them lectures, students have every reason to believe that the activities they are engaging in are legitimate.

So the students stayed there for a week, doing their student thing, even using some rooms as study halls for finals the following week, until 4:30am Friday morning. That is when the police burst in, locked the building's doors so that no one could leave, arrested everyone in their sleep, and dragged them off to jail.

That made the students very angry, and justifiably so. Those of you who are a bit older might want to think back to your first encounters with the arbitrary authority of middle aged people with weapons and uniforms. Remember how absolutely livid you were? That night a group of very angry students, those who happened not to be in the building during the police raid, marched through campus.

It is hard to piece together exactly what happened when the march went past the chancellor's residence. The police claim the students attacked the chancellor's home, and arrested eight protesters including Julia and Laura. The students say that all that occurred was minor vandalism by a small splinter group, and that the cops arrested the wrong people. But with eight of their number facing multiple felony charges and the governor of the state calling them terrorists, the students' lawyers advised them not to discuss the events.

While this may have some merit as a legal strategy, it left the police version of what happened largely unchallenged and the powers-that-be had a field day. University of California President Mark Yudof announced the students had gone "far beyond the boundaries of public dissent." UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau claimed his life had been placed in danger. Not to be outdone, Governor Schwarzenegger declared that "California will not tolerate any type of terrorism."

Laura, Julia, and the others were charged with rioting, threatening an education official, attempted burglary, attempted arson of an occupied building, felony vandalism, and assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer. Bail was set at $132,000 per student.

Then yesterday all charges against the students were dropped. Oops. Never mind.

Where the police saw multiple felonies, the chancellor saw a threat to his life, and the governor saw terrorism, the district attorney saw no case. This leaves Birgeneau, Yudof, and Schwarzenegger with some serious explaining to do. Particularly Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Consider what it means in the United States in 2009 to call someone a terrorist. Terrorists kill people. They fly planes into skyscrapers and explode car bombs in crowded market places. Terrorists are our icon of evil. This country has been waging a bloody and costly war on terrorists for years. To call someone a terrorist is to place them on the other side of that war.

These students were protesting a 32% tuition hike at a public university, brought on by an economic crisis that exploded out of the most powerful private financial institutions in the country. At UC Davis where I teach, students do not generally come from privileged backgrounds. I have students who are seriously wondering if they should stay in school at all given the higher tuition rate. They look at the bleak job market, and they can't see how a college degree will earn back the money it will cost their family for them to complete their college education. I have one student whose mother just took a job as a translator for a private military contractor in Afghanistan because it was the only way she could make ends meet.

Imagine what it is like for the parents of these students to have to come up with $132,000 on short notice to make their daughters' bail. To wake up to the governor calling their children terrorists? Type the names Laura Thatcher or Julia Litman-Cleper into Google and what comes up are links to pages and pages of media reports in which the governor of their state calls them terrorists. Imagine the stress that has placed on their families.

And then: never mind. No charges. Bye.

UC President Mark Yudof is absolutely right that there was "behavior" here that "went far beyond the boundaries" of what should be "tolerated," but it is behavior of the governor, not the students.