Education Opinion

UC Davis Students become Powerful Teachers

By Anthony Cody — November 22, 2011 6 min read
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you can follow me on twitter at @anthonycody.

Yesterday I joined my 19-year-old son, a sophomore at UC Davis, and about 10,000 other people, for a demonstration on the Quad at his school. This was the location of Friday’s infamous incident, when peacefully protesting students were sprayed in the face with military-grade pepper spray. But on this day, no police were to be seen. That made the place feel much safer.

We heard first from the students who had been sprayed. They related their experiences one after the other, in shocking detail.

Here is some of what student David Buscho shared with us.

Someone yelled 'pepper spray,' and I closed my eyes. My arm was around my girlfriend and I kissed her on the cheek. My friends buried their faces into their chests. And then it happened. At that point I entered a world of pain. It felt like hot glass was entering my eyes. I couldn't see anything. I wanted to open my eyes but every time I did the pain got worse. I wanted to breathe but I couldn't because my face was covered in pepper spray and every time I breathed I was nauseous. I couldn't see anything. I could feel my friends and my girlfriend writhing in pain. I wanted to cover her face but I couldn't because my hands were covered in pepper spray. I didn't know where the police were. I didn't want to stand up because I thought I would be arrested. I was afraid. I was no longer a protester. I was an object. And that's what the police officer wanted to turn us into.

One of the most disturbing things about this incident is the image of Lt. John Pike seeming to stroll by the row of seated students, spraying them as if they were bugs on the floor. The students were treated as less than human, and as David Buscho observed, the agony from the pepper spray left them as inert objects, incapable of movement or thought other than pain. It is ironic, then, that this officer has himself been turned into an object, as the image of him strolling along, spray can spraying, has been reapplied to dozens of other cultural reference points. I have seen Lt. Pike spraying Dorothy’s dog Toto, the baby Jesus in his crèche, the founding fathers as they sign the declaration of independence, and a Google image search for John Pike pepper spray” turns up dozens more.

There is something a bit gleefully vicious about all this. It is as if this officer has become a frozen statue, representing police brutality. I certainly hope that he, his superiors, and Chancellor Katehi are held responsible for the decisions they made here. But this makes we wish we had a process like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which were created after the fall of the apartheid regime. In these hearings, the victims of police abuse confronted those who had done them wrong. But there was space for the accused to share their perspective as well, and the goal was to really understand what had occurred, and achieve some kind of reconciliation. I would really like to better understand Chancellor Katehi’s thought process, and that of Lt. Pike. And perhaps if they joined us in reflecting on this, we might build some bridges. If we are to conquer violence, this is the sort of process we must pursue. Unfortunately, the South African people had to overthrow the apartheid regime before they could initiate such a process, so we may need some dramatic changes here as well before this will become possible. The Chancellor is meeting with students tonight to discuss what occurred, and we will soon hear how satisfactory that has been.

Then UC Davis associate professor Nathan Brown addressed the crowd. His detailed open letter calling for the resignation of Chancellor Katehi was the basis for this petition, which has gathered more than 83,000 signatures. At this point the crowd had grown to such a size that those at the edge could not hear the speakers - thus the “human mic” was used, in which the words of the person speaking are repeated by the crowd. He stated “There is no place on our campus for administrators who order the use of force against peaceful protesters.”

The crowd was obviously angry with Chancellor Katehi, and when it was announced that she was in line to speak, there were occasional chants calling for her resignation, along with others who chanted “Let her speak.” But the emcee on the stage told us the Chancellor was in line, and could speak when it was her turn. After a number of other speakers, Chancellor Katehi addressed the crowd briefly, and apologized for what had occurred.

The sense I had of the crowd there was that Katehi had so badly damaged their trust that there remained strong sentiment in favor of her resignation. I also think it is important that other leaders across the country witness some consequences for this sort of brutality, so that they feel some sense of restraint before they unleash this sort of assault.

Tonight, the Chancellor is holding a meeting to discuss the situation with students. There is news this afternoon that the California State Legislature will hold hearings on the use of force by UC police in recent weeks.

Then the quality of the event shifted. This was no longer simply a gathering for the purpose of hearing speakers and demonstrating our concern. It was a General Assembly of the Occupy UC Davis. If you have not participated in such a meeting, you should find out what you are missing. Across the country, gatherings such as this are developing new ways to communicate, discuss proposals, and arrive at consensus. The first proposal to be considered was for a campus-wide strike this coming Monday, Nov. 28. The focus is on a planned meeting by the UC Regents, who have on the table a proposal that could result in an increase of student fees by as much as 81% over the next four years. Six years ago, tuition at University of California was $5,357. Now it is $12,192. If this proposal is enacted, UC fees could rise to $22,068 by the year 2015.

Students at UC Davis are coordinating with those at other campuses, so this may be a system-wide action. In the “modified consensus” process being used, 90% of the group must agree for a proposal to be approved. There was a vote at the General Assembly yesterday, and 99.5% of those present supported the proposal to strike.

As I have mentioned, I was a student activist at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. There was always a core group of us activists, and we would hold meetings to plan events, forums and demonstrations. We would try to get other students active and engaged, but what I saw yesterday was different. The way the entire crowd is drawn into participating, discussing, and deciding on the steps to be taken creates a powerful democratic foundation for this movement. Can you imagine -- standing in a crowd of several thousand people, and finding that everyone has a chance to be heard, and a process is able to unfold that allows different perspectives to be heard, leading to a decision that truly represents the will of the overwhelming majority of those present. Remarkable!

The students took yesterday to focus on the violence that shook their campus, and soon will shift back to the bigger challenges they face in preserving the university as a public institution, with access for not only the wealthy among us. On the evening news last night, there were images of a 30 foot high geodesic dome students had constructed on the Quad as a meeting place, and numerous tents had been pitched anew.

Uodate 1:
Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson has offered a powerful commentary at the Chronicle for Higher Education, entitled “A Plea to College Presidents: Exercise your Moral Leadership.”

Update 2: Angus Johnston has posted “Ten Things you Should Know about Friday’s UC Davis Police Violence” here, providing some specifics about what happened.

Update 3:
Below is a video I shot of Chancellor Katehi’s speech. The video is lousy if you actually want to see her. But it is longer than the version above, and gives you a much better sense of the mood of the crowd.

Update #4: Statements from students addressing a hearing with Chancellor Katehi, taped this evening, Nov. 22nd.

Update #5: This article in the UC Davis Aggie newspaper reports on the forum Chancellor Katehi held last night, and indicates that the University intends to cover the medical expenses of the students that its police assaulted.

What do you think of the events at UC Davis? Have you participated in any Occupation general assemblies?

Thanks to Keith Bradnam and AggieTV for sharing the clips via Youtube. All other images are by Anthony Cody.

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.