Penn State and Berkeley: A Tale of Two Protests

Last night, two proud universities saw student demonstrations that spiraled into violence. On the campus of Penn State University in State College Pennsylvania, several hundred students rioted in anger after the firing of legendary 84-year-old head football coach Joe Paterno. At the University of California at Berkeley, 1,000 students, part of the Occupy USA movement, attempted to maintain their protest encampment in the face of police orders to clear them out.

At Penn State, students overturned a media truck, hit an ESPN reporter in the head with a rock and made every effort at arson, attempting to set aflame the very heart of their campus. They raised their fists in defense of a man fired for allegedly covering up the actions of a revered assistant who doubled as a serial child rapist. The almost entirely male student mob was given the space by police to seethe and destroy without restraint.

At Berkeley, the police had a much different response. Defenseless students were struck repeatedly with batons, as efforts were made to disperse their occupation by Sproul Hall, the site of the famed Mario Savio–led free speech battles of the 1960s.

Two coasts and two riots: a frat riot and a cop riot. Each riot, an indelible mark of shame on their respective institutions.

The difference is that at Berkeley, the Occupiers—a diverse assemblage of students, linking arms—pushed back and displayed true courage in the face of state violence. They would not be moved. These students are a credit to their school and represent the absolute best of a young generation who are refusing to accept the world as it is.

At Penn State, we saw the worst of this generation: the flotsam and the fools; the dregs and the Droogs; young men of entitlement who rage for the machine.

No matter how many police officers raised their sticks, the students of Berkeley stood their ground, empowered by a deeper set of commitments to economic and social justice.

No matter how many children come forward to testify how Joe Paterno’s dear friend Jerry Sandusky brutally sodomized them on their very campus, the students at Penn State stood their ground. They stood committed to a man whose statue adorns their campus, whose salary exceeds $1.5 million and whose name for years was whispered to them like he was a benevolent Russian czar and they were the burgeoning Black Hundreds.

Theirs was a tragic statement that proud Penn State has become little more than a company town that’s been in the lucrative business of nursing Joe Paterno’s legend for far too long.

I spoke this morning to a student who was at Sproul Hall and another resident who was a bystander at State College. The word that peppered both of their accounts was “fear:” fear that those with the space and means to be violent—the police at Berkeley and the rioters at Penn State—would take it to, as Anne, a Berkeley student said to me, “a frightening point of no return.”

I would argue that this “point of no return” has now actually been reached, spurred by Wednesday night’s study in contrasts.

November 9 was a generational wake-up call to every student on every campus in this country. Which side are you on? Do you defend the ugliest manifestations of unchecked power or do you fight for a better world with an altogether different set of values? Do you stand with the Thugs of Penn State or do you stand with Occupiers of Berkeley? It’s fear vs. hope, and the stakes are a hell of a lot higher than a BCS bowl.

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pigs !!!

Yes, the pigs are puppets for the fascist military police state , that Is amerika...they WILL go down with the collapsing empire !!!

Berkeley v. Penn State

I'm with you on the Berkeley protest. I think you have oversimplified the Penn State protest.

In both cases, I believe the media reports leave a lot to be desired.

Penn and Cal

As a former college athlete, teacher, and business person, I'm with the Cal Students. Having Marched with Caesar Chavez and Bobby Kennedy and just visited and provided some resources for men and women at the Sacramento protest, what I've seen at Penn St is sac but not really unusual. In defending one of my students (4 yr old injured at a Cal St Univerity day care center) I was threatened by a University, Co Schools Superintendent and an Attorney General, when I recommended an Attorney, so I know what to expect from these overrated people at the So-Called Top, profit, status and power. Your insights are welcomed.

berkeley and penn state

Once again you have made an insightful connection between sports and politics. Keep on keepin' on Homz !!! On one side you have folks fighting for a better world, as you said. On the other side, where is the concern for the young ones who were raped ???!!!???!!! After all ... this goes all the way back to 2002 !!!


Keep shining the light Dave.

Tale of Two Tremors

Ir's a powerful contrast you draw, Dave,,,one that says a lot about the strange moment we're living right now. In honesty, though, I can imagine myself having been involved in either, neither or both demonstrations during my own college days (in the 70s), for reasons more complex than the motivations you project on Wednesday's heroes and the villains. Would that it be so simple... .

Brings back Memories

I graduated from Cal in 1971, so I well remember the days of protest. Then one fall day we heard that students at UCLA (of all places) had erupted in protest, actually closing one of the freeways in LA! Then we learned the truth---the powder-blue airheads were protesting the fact that USC was chosen to go to the Rose Bowl instead of UCLA. Yep, they had their priorities right at Westwood they did!

Child Molester Enablers Of The World, Unite!

Difficult to find any motivation for defending Joe Pa.

While many Americans like to fashion this as a land of "democracy and freedom", the reality is that we are living in a neo-liberal police state. Every time the powers that be hold meetings, whether it is the WTO, G20, or whatever, they turn the community they meeting in into an armed fortress for brutalizing anybody who might show up to protest. So the police repress of the Occupy movement is just a matter of course as far an official response to the movement goes.

Egypt showed the world that there is only one way to deal with police stat thuggery, and it looks like that spirit of resistance is taking hold in the Occupy movements:

penn state and berkeley riots

keep preaching brother Dave -- i am waiting to hear the mainstream news media do a larger story on charities such as second mile and their all-too-easy access to sexual victims as a result of economic disenfrachisement -- probably ain't gonna happen -- looking forward to hearing more of your analysis. and thanks for adding the berkeley story to balance perspectives -- seems john carlos should be proud of his example to the Millenials.

Penn State/State College, PA - a company town indeed. . .

I mean, a statue of coach Joe Paterno on campus - while he's still alive???

Wow - how banana-republican can you get?

Excellent contrast

Dave Zirin is right on the money. Spoiled, frat boy brats riot over a coach who was justly fired for covering up for a child rapist, and the cops in that case give them room to destroy and throw their tantrums. Meanwhile the courageous students at Berkeley who are actually committed to making a better world for all are met by the jack boots of rioting cops who enforce the illegitimate State-corporate power system that is plundering and pillaging the commons.

Questioning authority?

Thanks for the great column. It appears that violence in support of authority, in this case the football coach as legend, is acceptable to the police. In addition to the overturned vehicle and other destruction, The New York Times article on this mentions a cop who was maced by a protester and was supposedly rolling on the ground in pain, Yet despite all of this there were no arrests.

Meanwhile, when students demonstrate against the crippling tuition hikes that are now accepted practice in our profit over all else society, or when Occupy protesters question our economic and social system, they are met with an excessive, militaristic level of force.

Welcome to the American dystopia - where peaceful demonstrators are met with lethal projectiles, tear gas and repeated assaults with batons, and an angry mob of college frat boys are allowed to rampage until their ire has played itself out.

Penn State - it goes deeper

Dave, you have a great insight into the economic forces at work in State College to make football the money engine for the whole area. I can add an even sadder note, supplied by my husband who grew up about 30 miles West of there. He tells me how much Joe Paterno was loved because he actually did some local recruiting among the coal miners and farmers sons too poor to go to college. This is Appalacia, where most children leave forever or work in some dangerous job because there isn't anything else. I would love to introduce you to my brother-in-law, who lacks two fingers and is on portable oxygen from the years he spent in a furniture mill. I excuse none of the behaviors of the Penn State staff or rioting students, but there is a political and sociological explanation for the near-religious way they are viewed by the locals.

The Difference

Hello Dave, and thanks so much for speaking at Sonoma State University last Wednesday when all of this was going down. Perhaps the biggest difference will define itself in the long run: when students at both universities look back on their college years, the UC Berkeley students may feel proud that they did the right thing, standing up to coporate abuse and injustice. The Penn State students who rioted on behalf of a "legend" who turned his back on children, will feel much differently, especially when they have their own kids...

penn state riots vs. occupy disorder

Brilliantly put. Whatever the excesses of the Occupy demonstrators, they expressing an it's-about-time sense of outrage over gross economic inequality and an unbelievably selfish, arrogant American aristocracy. Whereas the morally-clueless Penn State frat brats were essentially saying so what to child rape and throwing a temper tantrum because their football season's been spoiled.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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