By Bob Ostertag
November 19, 2011
Yesterday, police at UC Davis attacked seated students with a chemical gas.
I teach at UC Davis and I personally know many of the students who were the victims of this brutal and unprovoked assault. They are top students. In fact, I can report that among the students I know, the higher a student’s grade point average, the more likely it is that they are centrally involved in the protests.
This is not surprising, since what is at issue is the dismantling of public education in California. Just six years ago, tuition at the University of California was $5357. Tuition is currently $12,192. According to current proposals, it will be $22,068 by 2015-2016. We have discussed this in my classes, and about one third of my students report that their families would likely have to pull them out of school at the new tuition. It is not a happy moment when the students look around the room and see who it is that will disappear from campus. These are young people who, like college students everywhere and at all times, form some of the deepest friendships they will have in their lives.
This is what motivates students who have never taken part in any sort of social protest to “occupy” the campus quad. And indeed, there were students who were attacked with chemical agents by robocops who were engaging in their first civic protest.
Since the video of the assault has gone viral, I will assume that most of you have seen the shocking footage. Let’s take a look at the equally outrageous explanations and justifications that have come from UC Davis authorities.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi sent a letter to the university last night. Chancellor Katehi tells us that:
The group was informed in writing… that if they did not dismantle the encampment, it would have to be removed… However a number of protestors refused our warning, offering us no option but to ask the police to assist in their removal.
No other options? The list of options is endless. To begin with, the chancellor could have thanked them for their sense of civic duty. The occupation could have been turned into a teach-in on the role of public education in this country. There could have been a call for professors to hold classes on the quad. The list of “other options” is endless.
Chancellor Katehi asserts that “the encampment raised serious health and safety concerns.” Really? Twenty tents on the quad “raised serious health and safety concerns?” Has the chancellor been to a frat party lately? Or a football game? Talk about “serious health and safety concerns.”
How about this for another option: three years ago there was a very similar occupation of the quad at Columbia University in New York City by students protesting the way the expansion of the university was displacing residents in the neighborhood. There was a core group of twenty or thirty students there around the clock. At the high points there were 200-300. The administration met with the students and held serious discussions about their concerns. And after a couple of weeks the protest had run its course and the students took the tents down. The most severe action that was even contemplated on the part of the university was to expel students who were hunger striking, under a rule that allows the school to expel students who are considered a threat to themselves. But no one was actually expelled.
Remember when universities used to expel students instead of spray them with chemical agents?
We should also note that at Columbia, a private university, the campus police carry no arms and no pepper spray.
It is worth noting that in [a] Columbia photo, the one without helmets, guns, or chemical assault weapons, the student is being arrested for selling cocaine. In the Davis photo the students were defending public education.
Could Chancellor Katehi please explain what “serious health and safety concerns” were posed at Davis that were absent at Columbia? The only thing that involved a “serious health and safety concern” at Davis yesterday was the pepper spray. I just spoke with a doctor who works for the California Department of Corrections, who participated in a recent review of the medical literature on pepper spray for the CDC. They concluded that the medical consequences of pepper spray are poorly understood but involve serious health risk. As with chili peppers, some people tolerate pepper spray well, while others have extreme reactions. It is not known why this is the case. As a result, if a doctor sees pepper spray used in a prison, he or she is required to file a written report. And regulations prohibit the use of pepper spray on inmates in all circumstances other than the immediate threat of violence. If a prisoner is seated, by definition the use of pepper spray is prohibited. Any prison guard who used pepper spray on a seated prisoner would face immediate disciplinary review for the use of excessive force. Even in the case of a prison riot in which inmates use extreme violence, once a prisoner sits down he or she is not considered to be an imminent threat. And if prison guards go into a situation where the use of pepper spray is considered likely, they are required to have medical personnel nearby to treat the victims of the chemical agent.
Apparently, in the state of California felons incarcerated for violent crimes have rights that students at public universities do not.
Amazingly, UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza attempted to justify this crime.
If you look at the video you are going to see that there were 200 people in that quad. Hindsight is 20-20 and based on the situation we were sitting in, ultimately that was the decision that was made.
Yes, there were about 200 people in the quad. It is a piece of grass that was placed by the designers of the campus to be an open, central meeting place for the university community. But somehow, 200 students in the quad has become a problem. A huge problem. A problem so big that, well, yeah it was too bad those kids got pepper sprayed, but hey, there were 200 people in the quad.
Like the chancellor, Chief Spicuzza justified the assault by saying that the protest was “not safe for multiple reasons,” none of which she specified.
How is it that non-violent student protest has suddenly become “unsafe” in the United States?
Just to jolt us back to reality for a moment, remember Amy Carter, daughter of former President Jimmy Carter. In 1985 she was arrested in an anti-apartheid demonstration at the South African Embassy in Washington. Like the Davis students, she was arrested when she refused an order to disperse. But she wasn’t sprayed with a chemical weapon, or bodyslammed to the ground. She was handcuffed and led to a police car, telling reporters, ”I’m proud to be my father’s daughter.” The following year she was arrested again, this time at the University of Massachusetts protesting CIA recruitment there.
In short, Amy was just the sort of student that the administration of the UC is panicked about. She moved from place to place. She was arrested multiple times. She was not a student at UM at the time of her arrest there. She was a sophomore at Brown. This is the big fear the UC leadership keeps raising about today’s campus protests: the protests can’t be allowed because they might involve “outside agitators” who are not students. Well, the former president’s daughter was just such an outside agitator. She even brought Abbie Hoffman to get arrested with her at a university where she was not a student! The sky didn’t fall. No one was injured. No weapons were used. And Amy was acquitted of all charges, successfully arguing in court that CIA involvement in Central America and elsewhere was equivalent to trespassing in a burning building.
Now fast forward to today. Last week, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau issued a statement justifying the brutal use of police batons on student protesters like this:
It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience… the police were forced to use their batons.
Perhaps the Chancellors of Davis and Berkeley have never seen this photo of people with linked arms. It is an iconic image of non-violent civil disobedience in this country.
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau thus joins the likes of Bull Connor, the notorious segregationist and architect of the violent repression of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, as some of the very few people who view the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King as violent.
Most people disagree, which is why King was given the Nobel Peace Prize.
Throughout my life I have seen, and sometimes participated in, peaceful civil disobedience in which sitting and linking arms was understood by citizens as a posture that indicates, in the clearest possible way available, protestors’ intent to be non-violent. If example, if you look through training materials from groups like the Quakers, the various pacifist organization and centers, and Christian organizations, it is universally taught that sitting and linking arms is the best way to de-escalate any confrontation between police and people exercising their first amendment right to public speech.
Likewise, for over 30 years I have seen police universally understand this gesture. Many many times I have seen police treat protestors who sat and linked arms when told they must disperse or face arrest as a very routine matter: the police then approach the protestors individually and ask them if, upon arrest, they are going to walk of their own accord or not the police will have to carry them. In fact, this has become so routine that I have often wondered if this form of protest had become so scripted as to have lost most of its meaning.
Bob Ostertag is a composer, historian, journalist, and Professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at UC Davis