By now, you’ve probably seen the the footage of the UC Davis students being pepper sprayed. It’s disgusting stuff. The students are sitting down in a line, across a sidewalk, protesting recent tuition hires, and, ironically enough, episodes of police brutality elsewhere in the University of California system. They are peaceful. No one is yelling. Their arms are linked. Then a cop, decked out his Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome post-appolocyptic riot suit, pulls out a canister of pepper spray, extends his arm so that the canister is just inches from the unprotected eyes of a student sitting at the far end of the line, and begins spraying. Then, this cop casually walks down the line, as though he’s watering a line of tomato plants, spraying directly into the eyes of each student in turn. They all fall over, gasping for air. And then the billy clubs come out… It would seem the police were called on campus at the behest of the UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, who is now being asked by many on campus to resign. Following is an open letter written to Katehi by UC Davis Assistant Professor Nathan Brown.
…Today you ordered police onto our campus to clear student protesters from the quad. These were protesters who participated in a rally speaking out against tuition increases and police brutality on UC campuses on Tuesday—a rally that I organized, and which was endorsed by the Davis Faculty Association. These students attended that rally in response to a call for solidarity from students and faculty who were bludgeoned with batons, hospitalized, and arrested at UC Berkeley last week. In the highest tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, those protesters had linked arms and held their ground in defense of tents they set up beside Sproul Hall. In a gesture of solidarity with those students and faculty, and in solidarity with the national Occupy movement, students at UC Davis set up tents on the main quad. When you ordered police outfitted with riot helmets, brandishing batons and teargas guns to remove their tents today, those students sat down on the ground in a circle and linked arms to protect them.
What happened next?
Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students. Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.
What happened next?
Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.
This is what happened. You are responsible for it.
You are responsible for it because this is what happens when UC Chancellors order police onto our campuses to disperse peaceful protesters through the use of force: students get hurt. Faculty get hurt. One of the most inspiring things (inspiring for those of us who care about students who assert their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly) about the demonstration in Berkeley on November 9 is that UC Berkeley faculty stood together with students, their arms linked together. Associate Professor of English Celeste Langan was grabbed by her hair, thrown on the ground, and arrested. Associate Professor Geoffrey O’Brien was injured by baton blows. Professor Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also struck with a baton. These faculty stood together with students in solidarity, and they too were beaten and arrested by the police. In writing this letter, I stand together with those faculty and with the students they supported.
One week after this happened at UC Berkeley, you ordered police to clear tents from the quad at UC Davis. When students responded in the same way—linking arms and holding their ground—police also responded in the same way: with violent force. The fact is: the administration of UC campuses systematically uses police brutality to terrorize students and faculty, to crush political dissent on our campuses, and to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly. Many people know this. Many more people are learning it very quickly.
You are responsible for the police violence directed against students on the UC Davis quad on November 18, 2011. As I said, I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation on these grounds…
I am writing to tell you in no uncertain terms that there must be space for protest on our campus. There must be space for political dissent on our campus. There must be space for civil disobedience on our campus. There must be space for students to assert their right to decide on the form of their protest, their dissent, and their civil disobedience—including the simple act of setting up tents in solidarity with other students who have done so. There must be space for protest and dissent, especially, when the object of protest and dissent is police brutality itself. You may not order police to forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality. You may not do so. It is not an option available to you as the Chancellor of a UC campus. That is why I am calling for your immediate resignation.
Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students. Your actions directly threaten the safety of our students. And I want you to know that this is clear. It is clear to anyone who reads your campus emails concerning our “Principles of Community” and who also takes the time to inform themselves about your actions. You should bear in mind that when you send emails to the UC Davis community, you address a body of faculty and students who are well trained to see through rhetoric that evinces care for students while implicitly threatening them. I see through your rhetoric very clearly. You also write to a campus community that knows how to speak truth to power. That is what I am doing…
And here’s footage of Chancellor Linda Katehi leaving her office much later that night, after having listened to students outside chanting “We are peaceful” and “Just walk home” for several hours without stop. It’s an incredible scene. I’ve heard the phrase “deafeningly silent” before, but I’ve never actually experienced it. Katehi’s walk to her can seems to go on forever, as she walks the gauntlet of seated, absolutely silent students. It’s really inspiring.
I don’t know about you, but I found that incredibly moving.
[Students of Penn State, I don't want to tell you how to conduct yourselves, but, if you ever find yourselves in a situation again where a university leader is suspected of having enabled a serial pedophile to rape children on your campus, this might be better way to greet him than screaming support in his front yard, and flipping over news vans.]
And, here’s a relevant quote from Glen Greenwald:
…Pervasive police abuses and intimidation tactics applied to peaceful protesters — pepper-spray, assault rifles, tasers, tear gas and the rest — not only harm their victims but also the relationship of the citizenry to the government and the set of core political rights. Implanting fear of authorities in the heart of the citizenry is a far more effective means of tyranny than overtly denying rights. That’s exactly what incidents like this are intended to achieve. Overzealous prosecution of those who engage in peaceful political protest (which we’ve seen and more of over the last several years) as well as the sprawling Surveillance State are the close cousins of excessive police force in both intent and effect: they are all about deterring meaningful challenges to those in power through the exercise of basic rights. Rights are so much more effectively destroyed by bullying a citizenry out of wanting to exercise them than any other means…
Thankfully, as students at neither UM or EMU seem inclined to protest, I don’t suppose we’ll be seeing anything like this playing out locally.
update: I doubt they’ll face any real consequences, but two of the officers involved in the UC Davis episode were placed on administrative leave today.
update: The internets are having some fun with the sauntering Officer Pike.