Education Opinion

Peaceful UC Davis Students Pepper-Sprayed

By Anthony Cody — November 19, 2011 4 min read
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Students occupying the central quad at the University of California at Davis were pepper sprayed in the face as they sat peacefully on the ground yesterday afternoon. One of my two sons attends this school. I would like you to watch the entire eight minutes of this video.

I attended UC Berkeley in the 1980s. We protested President Reagan’s funding of death squads in Central America. We protested UC investments in apartheid South Africa. In fact, the Divestment movement created an encampment on the steps of Sproul Plaza that lasted for months. I spent several nights sleeping there with hundreds of other students. There was very little violence. The operation of the University, though occasionally inconvenienced, continued. In 1986, as a result of this pressure, the UC Regents decided to withdraw $3 billion in investments from companies doing business in South Africa, and some months later, the apartheid regime in South Africa fell. I went to the Oakland Coliseum and heard Nelson Mandela acknowledge this movement as one of the factors contributing to the downfall of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I am very proud of these students. I am proud of them for taking a stand for what they believe in. When you watch the video, you will see the students sitting on the ground. A police officer, Lt. John Pike, then deliberately sprays pepper spray directly in their faces. What happens next is inspiring. The students chant “Shame on you!” and “Our University” as the police officers back up. At the edge of the quad, the students tell the officers that they have a peaceful opportunity to leave. They chant “You can go now.” The officers leave and the students reclaim the public space from those who have committed violence within it. There is a more thorough accounting and additional videos posted here.

I cannot believe that police felt it necessary to use pepper spray under these circumstances. The reason given was that students had refused to remove tents. What has changed since 1986, when student protesters were able to camp for weeks on end at a UC campus without being violently evicted? These students are non-violent. They are not even disrupting campus activities. They are simply taking up public space with an ongoing, visible protest of the status quo. This has apparently become intolerable.

The first amendment of the Constitution gives us the right to assemble peacefully, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. This right has been violently breached.

The Chancellor, Linda Katehi, has issued a statement on the incident. She states:

We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested. We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal.

Chancellor Katehi can be contacted here. I believe the action by the police was completely unwarranted and should be investigated and prevented from happening in the future.

A petition calling on Chancellor Katehi to resign has been posted here. Nathan Brown, an assistant professor at UC Davis, writes:

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.

I am deeply troubled by this turn of events. At the end of the video I heard the students calling for a campus strike on Monday and a rally at noon on the quad. I will be there to support the students who were assaulted.

The Faculty Association of UC Davis has called for the resignation of Chancellor Katehi.

Update 2: Chancellor Katehi has released a statement indicating that she will launch a task force to investigate yesterday’s incident.

Update #3: Last night Chancellor Katehi shared her decision to form a task force. Students surrounded the building. When she left, they sat in silence along the path as she walked to leave. Something about this is very powerful, as they bore witness to injustice.

Update #4:
An interview with a student who was one of those pepper-sprayed, filmed last night. She has not been contacted by the police or the chancellor or anyone from the administration.

Update #5: Chancellor Katehi is accepting comments regarding the Task Force investigation here: chancellorkatehi@ucdavis.edu.

Update #6: CNN is reporting that two officers have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. They also have an interview with Chancellor Katehi posted here, taped last night. She says that the primary reason for the action was concern over health and safety. Several students were sent to the hospital as a result of this action.

Update #7: Here are some photos of the tents that Chancellor Katehi determined were such a threat to the health of students.

Update #8: Here is an important analysis of the health effect of pepper spray.

Update #9:
UC President Mark Yudof has announced there will be an urgent review of police procedures. The use of billy clubs on peaceful demonstrators at UC Berkeley, including poet Robert Haas, has also drawn criticism, including this New York Times column today.

Update #10:
An account from the woman, the Reverend Kristin Stoneking, who walked Chancellor Katehi to her car through the silent students Saturday evening.

Update #11: Interview with Chancellor Katehi taped this morning: “Police followed protocol but protocol is not always appropriate.”

Update #12: A petition has been launched asking President Obama to condemn the use of pepper spray and other chemical weapons on peaceful protestors. It says:

The use of violence in response to peaceful protest is an affront to our civil rights as American citizens.
President Obama has already eloquently spoken out against the use of violence on peaceful protesters during the Arab Spring. He continues to condemn various governments for the same. We call on the President to condemn the use of physical violence and intimidation, including the use of pepper spray, tear gas and the LRAD here in the United States.
Currently, these and other military techniques are being used around the country on peaceful citizens who are exercising their constitutional right to assemble as part of the Occupy movement.
The President and his office have remained silent regarding the violence perpetrated at this events, including Oakland, UC Davis and elsewhere.

What do you think of this action by the police? What do you think of the student response?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.