Each and every day some police action infuriates and breathes new life into this movement. Just when you think the movement might go stale and the message of “We are the 99%” will no longer pack the punch that it has had over the last two months, some picture or some video is released showing occupiers or, in this case, students peacefully standing their ground in the face of police violence.
Yesterday, UC Davis students showed solidarity with students at other UC campuses, who are facing tuition increases and have been the victim of police brutality (particularly at UC Berkeley during Occupy Cal protests). The students set up tents on the main quad area of UC Davis. Police were ordered to remove the tents and arrived in riot gear holding batons and tear gas guns. Students sat on the ground in a circle, linked arms and held their ground in the face of a menacing police force.
“Lieutenant of Police” for UC Davis, John Pike, stepped over the line of occupiers sitting on the ground. He pointed a pepper spray canister at the line of students. Then, as if he was watering his lawn, he began spraying the students with orange-colored pepper spray.
The students remained calm. Those around the students began screaming but students being sprayed tucked their heads and tried to avoid getting spray in their face. Only a few occupiers stood up and ran off.
Following the pepper spraying, arrests were made. The brutality escalated, according to an assistant professor at the university, Nathan Brown:
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.
Brown wrote an “open letter” calling on Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi to resign. The entire letter boldly condemns the Chancellor for permitting riot police to handle students as police did. The letter also boldly defends the students for standing their ground.
…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…
Occupy Davis had setup a camp on Thursday. They were informed by the university during the morning yesterday that the university could no longer allow the camp to exist on campus.
Chancellor Katehi wrote a letter on the removal of tents. While she did not necessarily defend the pepper spraying of students, she appallingly attempted to provide cover for the police brutality by stating, “We were aware that some of those involved in the recent demonstrations on campus were not members of the UC Davis community and this required us to be even more vigilant about the safety of our students, faculty and staff. We take this responsibility very seriously.”
Assistant Professor Brown rightfully declares in his open letter:
…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…
Occupy Davis now appears to be considering “a peaceful community bike ride” to visit the chancellor’s College Park/Russell neighborhood and confront her for sending riot police on to campus to use violence to remove what was up until police arrived an entirely peaceful assembly.
Chancellor Katehi has issued a statement of apology. Here is an excerpt, including Katehi’s proposal for remedying the situation:
…During the early afternoon hours and because of the request to take down the tents, many students decided to dismantle their tents, a decision for which we are very thankful. However, a group of students and non-campus affiliates decided to stay. The university police then came to dismantle the encampment. The events of this intervention have been videotaped and widely distributed. As indicated in various videos, the police used pepper spray against the students who were blocking the way. The use of pepper spray as shown on the video is chilling to us all and raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this.
To this effect, I am forming a task force made of faculty, students and staff to review the events and provide to me a thorough report within 90 days. As part of this, a process will be designed that allows members of the community to express their views on this matter. This report will help inform our policies and processes within the university administration and the Police Department to help us avoid similar outcomes in the future. While the university is trying to ensure the safety and health of all members of our community, we must ensure our strategies to gain compliance are fair and reasonable and do not lead to mistreatment.
Furthermore, I am asking the office of Administrative and Resource Management and the office of Student Affairs to review our policies in relation to encampments of this nature and consider whether our existing policies reflect the needs of the students at this point in time. If our policies do not allow our students enough flexibility to express themselves, then we need to find a way to improve these policies and make them more effective and appropriate. [emphasis added]
Katehi does not label what the students did as nonviolent civil disobedience. The refusal to remove tents happened because students wanted to assert a right to political expression on campus that they (and others in the Occupy movement) feel they should have in spaces all over the country. What students are doing in asserting this right is challenging society to grant citizens more rights in public or even, in some cases, private space.
Rather than labeling those who do not take down tents when asked as anarchists or lawless people, discussion should be had over what students are trying to do by refusing to disperse. There should be a discussion about how the movement is trying to build community in these spaces where we are seeing police carry out city-ordered evictions.