From Positive Choices to Unaffiliated Persons: Tracking UCSC’s Rhetoric about 4/20.

Tomorrow is 4/20, the annual holiday celebrating “cannabis culture.”  And there are few places where this holiday is celebrated with more gusto than at UC Santa Cruz.  Tomorrow afternoon, perhaps a thousand people (maybe more—it’s going to be a beautiful day) will smoke pot in Porter Meadow, while UCSC administrators wring their hands.

Now it’s no secret that the UCSC Admin hates this event.  It’s a public relations nightmare for a campus that is trying to suppress its roots as liberal arts school devoted to weird and/or socially-engaged scholarship in order to sell itself as a science and technology feeder program for Silicon Valley.  It’s all about branding, of course, and YouTube videos of hippies smoking marijuana do a lot of damage to the brand with potential employers, potential donors, state legislators, and parents.  Never mind the possibility, of course, that one of the signature characteristics of undergraduate life at UCSC (or at many colleges these days) is marijuana—indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if more of my students smoked pot this week than did the assigned reading.  But shhhh, that’s not good branding.

The UCSC Admin knows, of course, how popular marijuana is on this campus and they know that they have very little leverage when it comes to stopping tomorrow’s festivities.  Every year, they try to make the west side of campus as inaccessible as possible for that afternoon and that’s about the extent of it.  As Chancellor Blumenthal has admitted candidly in conversations with students this spring, “send[ing] in the National Guard” probably couldn’t even clear Porter Meadow on the afternoon of 4/20.  He meant this as a joke, I guess, but given the UC’s recent track record with the use of force, this probably isn’t as distant a possibility as he would like us to believe.

And indeed, I think it’s worth paying attention to the administration’s rhetoric about 4/20.  I have been at UCSC long enough to know that mid-April always brings a campus-wide email (or two) that expresses official disapproval for the event and that outlines the temporary changes to campus parking rules and transportation systems.  For many years, the email went out from Student Affairs and was signed by Felicia McGinty, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.  The text was more or less similar every year.  You can find last year’s version here.

McGinty’s annual email is a hybrid of your typical student affairs fuzziness (encouraging students to “make positive choices” and to “engage with your peers”) and the logic of marketing.  As I noted earlier, the idea here is that UCSC is a brand and this “unwelcome event diminishes UCSC’s reputation and brings unwanted negative attention to the campus.”  The preferred narrative for UCSC, as McGinty notes, is anything that would “highlight your accomplishments as scholars and engaged world citizens.”  Every year, I always laugh at this final line.  I don’t, of course, want to diminish the importance of scholarly accomplishments and social engagement, but it’s a tall order to take seriously this exhortation by a campus administration that has gutted scholarly programs in the humanities and social sciences and has repeatedly tried to kill programs like Community Studies that produce “engaged world citizens.”  As far as the admin is concerned, it’s 4/20 that’s killing our academic reputation, not the fact that the budget priorities of the administration are—every day of the year, including 4/20—killing our academic reputation.  It’s a gutsy rhetorical move, but that’s how Kerr Hall likes to roll.

This year’s 4/20 email, however, is significantly different and not just because Vice Chancellor McGinty is no longer around to sign it (she was reorganized out of her job last summer).  The departure from the previous rhetoric is notable and actually quite troubling.  Here is the email as I received it in its entirety:

From: UCSC Police Department <>
Subject: Public safety, traffic alert for April 20
Date: April 16, 2012 9:36:05 PM PDT
To: UCSC Community


April 16, 2012

To: UC Santa Cruz Community
From: Nader Oweis, UC Santa Cruz Chief of Police
Re: Public safety, traffic alert for April 20

This notification is being provided to advise members of the campus community, others with valid reasons for visiting the UC Santa Cruz campus, and campus neighbors of the potential for disruptions and hazards associated with an unsanctioned gathering known as “4-20” during the afternoon of April 20. The nature of the annual gathering may involve a large number of individuals in or near the Porter Meadow, and the greatest impact is expected between 3 and 6 PM.

Because of this expected activity, UC Santa Cruz Police department asks that you anticipate transportation and other disruptions, especially on the west side, and encourages that you plan accordingly. University Police will be in the area to address public safety needs, coordinate traffic management, and provide emergency response if needed.

To assist the Police Department in keeping the UCSC Community safe, everyone is encouraged to consider the following:

• Please remember that all members and guests of the UC Santa Cruz community are expected to comply with University policy, federal, and state law.

• Parking anywhere on campus and adjacent to campus may be difficult that afternoon. Campus parking regulations will be strictly enforced. Sections of Empire Grade will be designated as a tow-away zone, and vehicles will be ticketed and towed at owners’ expense.

• As a safety reminder, be prepared, plan alternate commute routes, and — because of traffic delays — please build in extra time for transit. Traffic and transit flow is expected to be highly impacted throughout the campus, especially along Empire Grade, and on Heller Drive from the West Entrance to McLaughlin Drive. Traffic diversion measures may be instituted if needed to alleviate impacted areas. If driving a vehicle, be alert for increased pedestrian traffic on all roadways.

• Because this activity attracts people who are unaffiliated with the campus, please make an extra effort to be aware of suspicious activity — and please don’t hesitate to immediately alert the UC Santa Cruz Police Department of such activity. If you are ever in doubt, it is always better to ask authorities to investigate, rather than risking potential harm to you or someone else.

• Those who live and work in the areas around Family Student Housing, Porter College and College Eight are advised that, as in past years, smoke may remain in the area throughout the late afternoon. Those with children, respiratory problems, or other medical conditions should use precautions.

• Please respect the rights of others.

Thank you in advance for your understanding and cooperation.

Nader Oweis, Chief of Police
University of California, Santa Cruz Police Department

The first thing you should notice is that this is not an email from Student Affairs, but from the UCSC Police Department, signed by the UCSC Chief of Police.  Not surprisingly, the rhetoric of student affairs (“positive choices”!) has been replaced with the language of “hazards” and “public safety.”  The language of branding has become the language of threat.  And indeed, we find in this email the appearance of the new favorite bogeyman of UC administrators statewide: the unaffiliated person.  As the email notes,

Because this activity attracts people who are unaffiliated with the campus, please make an extra effort to be aware of suspicious activity — and please don’t hesitate to immediately alert the UC Santa Cruz Police Department of such activity.

If this all sounds familiar to you, it should.  The Reynoso/Kroll report (released last week) is an investigation of the administrative failures that produced the “pepper-spraying incident” at UC Davis.  And, as reclaim UC and others note, the “non-affiliate” plays a starring role in the justification for police violence.  You should read the entire piece at reclaim UC, of course, but here’s a key analysis:

The language of the administration depicts the “non-affiliate” as a highly sexualized, racialized, and criminalized body, a foreign, contaminating body, a body that does not belong, that, like a cancer, presents a clear and present danger, that must be quickly identified and surgically removed.

Indeed, as another indispensible analysis (by Aaron Bady, here) points out, “non-affiliates” were the entire justification for shutting down the encampment at Davis:

To put it as simply as possible, there is no law against setting up tents in the day-time, and the UCDPD had no legal basis for what they did. They just didn’t. And since the presence of “non-affiliates” was the only possible legal fig leaf the campus administrators and police had to rely on, they had to believe in them, with all the faith of a 2003-era war hawk arguing about WMD’s in Iraq. Since Katehi wanted to destroy the camps, above all — and as the reports make very clear, the one non-negotiable objective was that the camps go, regardless of legal warrant — they had to imagine into existence a world in which such an action was defensible. They had to imagine Oakland bursting out of Davis. And so they did.

And so, just a few months after the threat of “non-affiliates” allowed UCD PD to rid the campus of an event that offended the Chancellor, we receive an email from UCSC PD about an event that offends the UCSC Chancellor in which the specter of “unaffiliated” people is raised.  You don’t need a giant cloud of pot smoke to see which way the wind is blowing.

Now I’m not predicting that tomorrow’s stoned revelers will be treated to a redux of the Lt. John Pike Show or anything similar.  But I am pointing out that the rhetoric is being put into place for the UCSC Administration to justify taking repressive physical action against the 4/20 gathering.  And while I don’t expect the National Guard to show up tomorrow, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if UCSC PD flexes its muscles a little: maybe one or two arrests or detainments of “unaffiliated” persons engaging in some sort of “suspicious activity.”  And even if tomorrow passes uneventfully, don’t forget that the UCSC Admin is slowly developing the tools they need to justify a future crackdown.


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