I am the father of a UC Davis student and — along with my wife — was appalled and sickened at videos we have seen of the UC Davis campus police officers pepper spraying students in a peaceful demonstration aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Nov. 21 Sunday Tribune reported the story on page A3, and again on Monday on page A4, but I suggest you either search online for “UC Davis pepper spray video” or go to www.huffingtonpost.com for a more extensive report, videos and a thoughtful review of more productive ways of handling nonviolent student protests.
It is shocking that after all the years that have transpired since the ’60s, during which reasonable customs and procedures have been established for handling free speech demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, we still find police officers who believe the best way to meet non-violent protest and free speech in a democracy is to do it with violence. Apparently two campus police officers believed that before they arrested U.S. citizens for alleged acts of unlawful assembly, it was best to pepper spray them first.
The videos show clearly what happened. Students were exercising their right to free speech about inequalities in the allocation of public resources. Rather than be treated with respect for caring enough about their country to make a statement, however, they were attacked, not by a street gang, but by police, and not by just any police, but by campus police — by exactly those public officials who should be best versed in handling public gatherings for the free exchange of ideas in an appropriate manner.
While about 20 students sat on the ground in a row with their heads bowed quietly awaiting arrest for having pitched tents as part of their protest on the campus quadrangle, a police officer displayed a can of pepper spray to the surrounding crowd and then from close range proceeded to methodically douse the protesters’ faces, heads and shoulders with it. He was later joined in the spraying by another UC Davis campus police officer. The students did not resist nor did the crowd become violent. The students were then arrested.
Besides being upset by the use of unwarranted and flagrant violence, we are outraged by the lame response to the incident by UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who had issued the original order to have the encampment disbanded for safety reasons. When informed of the pepper spraying, her immediate response was to say little more than that the incident was “chilling” and to call for a review of procedures and a report in 90 days.
A review of procedures? There was no mystery here. Almost any person seeing the videos would need no additional time to figure out that what just happened was a sadistic act of unprovoked violence that called for swift and certain response from superiors who had authorized the action.
They could not claim to have been blindsided. The Occupy Wall Street movement was already two months old. It was absolutely inevitable that there would be a demonstration on the Davis campus. Police had gotten rough with demonstrators a few days earlier on the Berkeley campus. How could the chancellor not have already reviewed policies to make sure that the response she ordered would ensure student safety since she ordered the procedure precisely to ensure campus safety?
Was her response to news of the spraying tepid because of who was involved? One cannot help but wonder if the chancellor would have been as blasé had the CEOs of the university’s top fifteen corporate donors held a sit-in to protest how poorly the top 1 percent has been portrayed recently — and consequently been pepper sprayed for their safety.
Of course this would never have happened. Those CEOs have lobbyists who would have done their protesting for them, linking their arms in solidarity with $15,000 campaign contribution checks showing in their shirt pockets.
By contrast, these students were trying to reach their political leaders about the abuse of such privilege by using what has become a time-honored means in our free society —public gatherings for public protest, an effective and affordable way to make a case readily available to the 99 percent who can’t afford lobbyists. And they got pepper spray in return, to silence their voices.
The chancellor who gave the order to have the encampment removed is totally responsible for the procedures used, the harm done, the outrage resulting and its consequences. When you blow something that big, it’s time to admit you’re not the one for the job, and step down.
Robert A. Lucas, Ph.D., is the director of the Institute for Scholarly Productivity, an educational consulting corporation, and emeritus associate vice president of graduate studies, research, and faculty development at Cal Poly.