Articles

Graduation Day at Berkeley Law: Many Orange Ribbons in the House!

 From World Cant Wait San Francisco chapter

 
Friday 5/14/10, 7:30 AM -- two groups were assembling before the commencement ceremony for UC Berkeley Law’s Class of 2010. 
 
Up at the stadium, World Can’t Wait was gathering around a 9-foot mobile “Abu Ghraib prisoner” with UC’s gold “Cal” logo emblazoned across his chest, setting up photo displays and posters dramatizing the torture unleashed by Bush-Cheney and their entire torture team, including Berkeley Law professor John Yoo.
 
At the law school as grads and faculty put on their caps and gowns, basketfuls of orange ribbons were circulated. By now everyone at Boalt knows exactly what the orange ribbon means:  constant protest, agitation and education everywhere Yoo goes have made it clear: “No Torture In My Name” and you’re saying it publicly. 
 
Some grads still don’t think torture has anything to do with their law careers, and ribbon distributors caught a few disparaging remarks. But more importantly, many more students took the ribbons and pinned them onto their gowns. And so did many of the professors – and several profs asked for handfuls, passing ribbons out to other faculty on the spot.
 
The persistent work of World Can’t Wait and other protesters demanding that John Yoo be fired, disbarred and prosecuted has had an impact, but much more than that has been affecting the climate at UC Berkeley lately. The campus has been rocked by student uprisings against the fee hikes, and by the fight to divest UC from corporations who arm Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians. 
 
Then there’s BP’s $500 million campus debut –groundbreaking for BP’s new UC facility is this week, even as the oil spreads across the Gulf of Mexico, outraging and terrifying the world. And just now, the inspiring 10-day student hunger strike made headline news challenging the horrendous Arizona anti-immigrant bill and more. So this is a time when every which way Cal students look, eye-opening events are posing the question: what kind of world are you going out into, and what are you going to do about it?
 
Our protest crew was solid – more volunteers kept arriving till there were 30 of us (even though this year’s graduation got moved to a weekday!).   
 
Some we’d never met, others were old friends we hadn’t seen for a while. One guy took public transportation all the way from the South Bay to be there. A writer brought copies to pass out of his research paper which demolishes Yoo’s legal scholarship. Some stoof facing the traffic with signs: Do UC Torture? Do UC Complicity? No Torture In My Name! and drivers honked, waved..  As we greeted the graduates’ families streaming  past, more orange ribbons got put on. 
 
We used a bullhorn to explain this protest, but we also had LOTS of individual conversations, trying to connect with parents and grandparents and friends of the grads:  Torture is a war crime, and when your government commits torture, silence is complicity -- if you’re against torture you have to show it, visibly. Most people checked us out, some gave us support. As for those who were hostile – they’d curse at us, or say belligerently “I LIKE torture!”  As if that in itself solved the question. 
 
We knew from last year that the graduation march might get re-routed to avoid the protest, so we moved our whole scene to the back gate… just in time to see the processional approaching us, led by Dean Christopher Edley and the faculty. Making a passage for them to come through, there were silent “detainees” posed in jumpsuits and hoods – the giant Abu Ghraib figure -- more baskets of orange ribbons. 
 
We flyered John Yoo fact sheets, with a special letter to the Class of 2010 signed by World Can’t Wait, Progressive Democrats of America, the National Lawyers Guild Committee Against Torture, and Code Pink Bay Area. The letter urged all new Boalt graduates to speak out about Yoo’s crimes to the University of California and to their new profession – to withhold alumni donations until UC holds Yoo accountable for his crimes; to work for bar sanctions against all the Bush-Cheney war criminals.
 
We began calling out to the graduates, focussing on the orange ribbons: Why wear them? Why does it matter – and on this special graduation day, especially! -- for you to make a public statement against torture? Who are the victims of the torture? What kind of university is this – it harbors a war criminal, sells itself to BP, refuses to divest from the genocide against Palestinians – should we accept any of this?
 
And over the bullhorn: “Dean Edley, where’s your orange ribbon? Dean Edley, tell the world you’re against torture!” As protesters came up to him holding out ribbons, Edley brushed past muttering “I don’t need one!” But it was amazing to see that a group of law professors walking right behind him— all had orange ribbons on their gowns!
 
In fact, as the processional flowed by, even more grads took ribbons, but we were all amazed to see how dozens and dozens of them were already wearing them. It wasn’t universal by a long shot but it was easily a third of the grads. This is a significant change over the last two years. It tells something about what is on people’s minds – and tells us what can be built upon. Later at the reception we could see the whole crowd at once, and about 30% or more of the total crowd was wearing orange ribbons.
 
As they passed the giant Abu Ghraib “Cal” statue, more than once we saw a couple of grads break out of the procession to run over and – wearing their orange ribbons – have their pictures snapped standing next to it before racing back to their spot in the line.
 
We then re-grouped at the reception, for more flyering and more conversation. A tableau of jumpsuits, John Yoo posters on super-pickets, and Abu Ghraib photos greeted the guests. We met lawyers, relatives of grads (including grandparents who’d been Free Speech Movement radicals as Cal students), grads and professors. 
 
Generally, too much acceptance still exists (whether supportive or just passive!) for John Yoo being at Boalt. And too many people still use “academic freedom” as a crutch for that. But all morning we definitely met a far bigger (and therefore, broader) positive response than past graduations. We got lots of thumbs up, smiles and waves, grads would proudly display their orange ribbons in all the family and friends picture-taking. We got quite a few “thank you for being here” greetings both from grads and others.  
 
“Our numbers were few, but our impact was substantial. The number of graduates and guests donning orange ribbons was truly uplifting,” said one World Can’t Wait activist. “The memorable moments for me were when those particular guests, just a handful in number, while making their way into the theater and, later, into the reception hall, actually stopped and listened out of genuine curiosity and concern to a message they had never seriously considered before -- the crimes of John Yoo and the role of the university in sanctioning those crimes…”
 
Yet, he continued: “…I realized that, had our World Can't Wait crew not been present at the graduation ceremony to contest John Yoo and UC Berkeley's complicity in crimes of war and torture, there would have been only silence, deafening and maddening silence. We touched more than a few hearts and minds, and kept the message alive for another day.
 

 

 

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World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.