UC Davis as a Sign of Deep Division

I had been planning to do some writing today on ‘Democracy.’ They would have focused on some events in Arizona and the new governments in Greece and Italy. But the events at the University of California, Davis have brought me up short. So before turning to those topics, some thoughts on this event closer to home.

If you haven’t been following what happened at UC Davis, I suggest James Fallow’s piece here. Definitely watch the video for yourself. Alexis Madrigal provides some useful perspective on the modern police system in the United States, also at The Atlantic.

Now, some thoughts of my own: I spent 10 years at school in California, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. While getting my advanced degree I spent a good deal of time teaching undergraduates. Now I teach a course at one of the California State University campuses. On Thursday I noticed a small “Occupy” group beginning to form in solidarity with the students at UC Berkeley. Like the UC Davis group, the students at my campus were supported by the faculty association, also vigorously protesting the budget cuts that are wracking higher education in the state.

So watching footage of California college students being sprayed with pepper spray for the apparent offense of sitting on campus quad and refusing to leave struck a special chord. Only a few weeks ago I was discussing the Berkeley Free Speech Movement with my students. So far, the student protests at Davis and elsewhere had not reached anywhere near that stage. Instead of occupying administration offices and thereby disrupting the work of the university, students have ‘occupied’ outdoor public spaces. Though they didn’t stand and disperse when ordered to, they also don’t seem to have interfered when officers arrested their classmates. (I expect the students’ own efforts to document their interactions with police has something to do with this.) Yet the officers chose to use the kind of confrontational tactics they should have reserved for actual acts of violence or destruction on the part of rioters.

I agree with Alexis Madrigal’s assessment that this goes beyond the actions of one individual. We’ve trained police to treat protestors as unAmerican or even inhuman. The police officer casually spraying the protesters showed no hint of empathy or shared human feeling. As we’ve been busy equipping police with riot gear and training them to respond to every situation as possibly a terrorist activity, pushing them into a military role, we’ve only increased the divide between civilians and the police. That’s a dangerous divide that goes far beyond partisan priorities.

I think that this also, unfortunately, reflects a broader set of divisions within our society. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the eschewal of ‘shared sacrifice,’ have widened the civilian-military gap. The war on terror has joined the war on drugs as an impetus for racial profiling and hyper-patriotism, prioritizing conformity and enforcement. Our politics is saturated with vilification. In such an environment, it is no wonder that a police officer would fail to see a group of sitting students (whom he had just easily stepped over) as a threat to be dispatched with the least effort on his part rather than as fellow citizens and fellow human beings.

In the 1960s, in the South, segregation and its accompanying racial ideology made it easier for white police officers to unleash violence against peaceful protestors. What systems are making it easier for police to treat protestors that way today?

7 Responses to UC Davis as a Sign of Deep Division
  1. kaahl
    November 21, 2011 | 1:55 am

    I am also sympathetic with the occupy movement. However, my first thought on viewing the video was “empty ritual”. I don’t mean to undermine the sincerity of student beliefs, the legal forces putting pressure on university admin, or the rules of engagement (or whatever the cops have) that the police force has, but it seemed like everyone performed their role quiet well. The students were shocked, shocked. The university admin was concerned for health and safety. The police recited their lines and performed their part. In a perverse way, getting pepper-sprayed in the face for peaceful protest was the optimal outcome for most student protesters–landing Occupy Davis on the national agenda.

    To digress, I just reread a legal history of the word ‘fuck’.

    To digress on the digression, I intentionally didn’t self-censor that word after digesting the argument that self-censoring when using ‘fuck’ in a legitimate context reinforces the very word taboo that has given rise to the mess of indecency cases that the Supreme Court grapples with. http://www.cardozolawreview.com/content/28-4/28-4.FAIRMAN.pdf

    To return to the original digression, “Fuck’s continued vitality is even more amazing when compared to the fate of its sixteenth century synonyms: jape and sarde are virtually unknown; Chaucer’s swive is archaic; and occupy returns to English with a nonsexual meaning.”

    Anyway, gives a new take on the entire Occupy movement.

    • Jason
      November 21, 2011 | 3:21 am

      I’ve been talking with my students over the past days about the apparent ineffectuality of student protest as it had so far unfolded. Striking by skipping classes you’ve already paid for seemed unlikely to arouse administrative ire. Neither did an authorized rally at noon. Neither did tents pitched on the campus quad. But because the administration blinked first and overreacted with the help of the police departments, the Occupy people might get somewhere. As you say, this was in many ways the best outcome for the protest movement. (Though I have my doubts about it being the best outcome for the protesters themselves. Those who took the pepper spray in the face bore the brunt of the cost for what will be at best a diffuse payoff.)

      It is a bit shocking, considering the existence of the historical script, that administration overreaction was so blatant. Had none of them taken a history class?

      I, too, read the law review article and found it amusing. There are plenty of people I wish would read it and I agree that the official censorship is ridiculous. But I think I’ll still fall in this category of people identified by the author: “To be sure there are also those who consciously choose not to use the word fuck because they do not want to convey any of its meanings or the emotions that go with the word. This seems more a matter of diction than taboo.”

      • kaahl
        November 23, 2011 | 7:19 pm

        yeah, i mainly fall into that camp. but sometimes, just sometimes, usually when I am alone, running, driving, or trying to pull out a tree stump, I let loose.

  2. Jared
    November 24, 2011 | 4:45 pm

    I made it a point today to read through the linked articles and watch the video. At the end all I could think of was, “that’s it?”

    I’ve only been marginally following the OWS news over the last few weeks. I read and saw some questionable things in places like Oakland so when I heard all the fuss about this video I figured it must’ve been pretty bad. I didn’t see that. In fact, from what little I saw of what has happened in places like Oakland I think it’s hurting the case for folks in the OWS movement to be clinging to this incident (I was sympathetic at first to the OWS crowd, less so now as the movement seems to have become more radicalized and lost focus).

    So let’s start with the beginning of the video. An article linked in Fallows’ piece makes it sound like the protesters were there illegally, asked to leave, and warned that if they didn’t they’d be removed. Is this not accurate? If it’s true it brings up my first big issue with this movement: why in the world are they being confrontational? Whatever happened to getting whatever paperwork needs to be done, having a march, ending the event with some speeches, and repeating ad nauseum? The TP did just that and I’m unaware of any real violent clashes with authorities over the 2-3 years they’ve been around.
    What happened before the video started? Did the police come out and ask these protesters to leave? Did they warn them what was about to happen?

    So we then see the officer spray the group of protesters on the sidewalk. What happens after that? Mostly… nothing. I saw at least one, maybe two, protesters get up and leave on their own. The majority don’t move. As the video goes on you can see that when police start to remove them at least one is still a handful for two officers even after being sprayed. I’m not having a lot of sympathy for folks who either a) suffered no noticeable effect or b) were still able to struggle with police after refusing to move from a place when asked by authorities after overstepping their legal bounds.

    After that point of the video I saw nothing remotely negative about how the police handled themselves. I heard a good bit that made me question what the protesters were thinking. At one point you hear someone shout out “you are supposed to protect us, what are you doing?” Later you hear another protester yell “who do you serve, who do you protect?” Both of these statements strike me as naive. Let’s try and follow the train of thought here. Apparently the protesters had broken the law and were being removed. So… the police are supposed to ignore their duty as law-enforcement (key word being the last one there), and protect these protesters (which I guess means doing nothing to them) because… the protesters are the good guys?

    I guess what really bugged me while watching this vid and reading Fallow’s piece was the lack of perspective. Protesters in the crowd shout out in what sounds like sheer agony “how can you do this” and “you sick [word I couldn’t make out]” and Fallows writes “watch that first minute and think how we’d react if we saw it coming from some riot-control unit in China, or in Syria.” The thing is, in places like Syria and Egypt now their police and military aren’t using pepper spray and paintball guns to control a crowd, they’re using real bullets (which may be the cause for scenes like this: http://twitpic.com/7h0ewk/full ). Frankly, with this one video as an example what we see doesn’t compare to what’s happening overseas. If it did, then TP folks were right in comparing Obama to Hitler. However, we (rightfully) condemned folks in the TP movement who had those signs. I think a similar level of criticism is due folks crying out over this*.

    *This isn’t to say some bad things haven’t been happening. Like I said earlier, I saw and read some things in the Oakland protests and in NY that sounded excessive. This just isn’t a case that’s on the same level from what little’s been presented so far.

    • Jason
      November 26, 2011 | 9:22 pm

      See my newest post for some responses. Here are a few other thoughts:

      I don’t understand why the persistence of the protestors after being pepper sprayed should diminish our sympathy for them. Just because the force was ineffective doesn’t make it reasonable.

      Sure, protest chants aren’t particularly articulate. Did you expect that they would be?

      No, I don’t think the police are supposed to ignore their duty as law-enforcement officials. But their response (especially in the use of force) is supposed to correspond with the threat they face. There was no imminent danger from the protestors, either to the officers or bystanders. So I don’t see the justification for inflicting harm.

      The answer to the questions “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” is supposed to be obvious: ‘the people.’ But the protest is about a two-tiered reality of ‘the people’: the police seem to serve and protect the administration first and the students second. The administration’s concerns about ‘health and safety’ trumped the student’s rights to peacefully assemble in protest because power on a college campus resides with the administration. Since the whole point of the Occupy movement is to draw attention to the disjoint between the ruling elite and the power that is supposed to reside with ‘the people,’ this chant actually makes some sense. It’s related to the ‘99%’ slogans.

      As for the international comparison, I think the point is not the level of violence (which, thankfully, is totally incomparable) but the justification for that violence. If protesting in the wrong way, wrong place, or wrong time is justification for punishment by the police, that is an indication that something is out of balance in our society.

      • Jared
        November 27, 2011 | 7:53 pm

        I’ll start from the bottom and work up.

        – Aren’t things out of balance when we’re ok with folks protesting in the wrong way, at the wrong place, and at the wrong time (when another movement recently showed you can to it the right way with no issues)? Why are you giving a pass to the protesters?

        Was pepper spray a bit much? Possibly. But so were the actions of the protesters. If there’s any blame and fault, it can go around equally.

        – What did the administration do that would warrant police involvement? The protesters (who are not all of us, despite the slogans) broke the law.

        As I mentioned before, there’s peaceful ways to rally/march/protest without getting the outcome we saw in the vid. The protesters made a choice not to take that route. If they had taken that route, some of those same police would have likely been detailed to watch over the rally/march/protest and nothing would have happened (again, as the TP showed countless times with all of their rallies).

        – There’s video out there now that shows more of what happened (such as this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8Uj1cV97XQ). Some on the right are claiming a group of police were surrounded. I can’t tell, and at the end of the day this is America (and not Syria) so the danger to the police was minimal.

        What you can see in vids like that is that the police didn’t show up and start going crazy. They asked the protesters to leave. They didn’t. They warned them that if they didn’t force would be used. The protesters remained. Finally, they asked them to leave once more and the protesters didn’t. Complying with a LEO to move when you’re breaking the law doesn’t seem like such an outlandish thing to do. What is possibly served by refusing to comply? How does this help the cause of the OWS movement?

        The police are not the enemy here. They had nothing to do with the increase in income disparity in this country. They have nothing to do with the questionable ties and relationships between big business and government. Back in the civil rights movement and in places like Syria and Egypt today the police were/are part of the problem. However, the choices that the protesters made led to this confrontation.

        – Yes, I do expect chants to be articulate and thought out. What’s the point of having a protest and spewing rubbish?

        – Their reaction leads me to believe the ‘suffering’ caused by the pepper spray is overblown.

        • Jason
          November 27, 2011 | 8:57 pm

          – I don’t think I’m giving a pass to the protestors. If they are breaking the law, then they should reasonably be arrested and face appropriate punishment. But it is the during of the police officers to enforce the law, not administer the punishment. Minor infractions of the protestors do not justify the pepper spray.

          Also, thought I’ve conceded for the sake of argument that these students at UC Davis were doing something wrong, I cannot tell what if any law they had broken. Certainly it cannot be illegal for students to sit and chant in protest on their own campus quad. In other circumstances schools encourage such vigils. So why break up this one? The answer goes to my point about power residing with the administration: when they are sympathetic to chants on the quad or overnight vigils, they allow and even encourage that action. But when students are protesting tuition hikes, we see another reaction.

          – As I mentioned in my follow-up post, I don’t accept the argument that warning of the use of force is sufficient to justify the use of force.

          If anything, I find the police’s actions in the context of the fuller video perhaps more disappointing. Whether they were in any danger initially, by the time they chose to pepper spray they were clearly able to control the situation. Standing students moved off of the sidewalk when asked. Police were able to step over the sitting protestors without difficulty, suggesting that there was no real danger. Without the threat of force, their use of force wasn’t warranted, even with a warning.

          If protestors must disband whenever an LEO asks, where is their right to assembly? And what good would that do in furthering their cause?

          Yes, the police are not the enemy here. But their actions are inseparable from the government. Students protested their administration, that administration responded by calling upon the police, and the police used excessive force. That seems like enough of a link to me.

          (On a related note, I’m certainly against vilifying the police. I feel bad for the office who has been singled out and whose contact information has been spread. I think it undermines the argument that this is a systemic problem when we choose to vilify a single officer in what was clearly a collective action, likely approved by superiors.)

          In the Civil Rights movement, the police were part of the problem because they chose to use excessive force to respond to non-violent protests, protests that were ‘illegal’ because no one would issue them a permit for any type of meaningful action.

          Yes, the Tea Party movement has show that things can be accomplished within the system. And I’m in favor of that. But their goals were fundamentally different. For all their rhetoric about the alien nature of ‘Washington’ what they really wanted was a partisan shift, a new set of leaders at the helm. The Occupy protestors have lost faith in either party and want, in some pretty fundamental ways, a changed system. That puts them much closer to the Civil Rights movement. This is not to say that their aims or means have equal merit, but they have a shared perspective of being outsiders looking in that distinguishes them from the Tea Party.

          – We’ll have to agree to disagree on reasonable bases for evaluating the ‘suffering’ inflicted by pepper spray. I’m sticking with the ruling by the 9th Circuit that, when used on non-violent protestors, pepper spray meets the definition of excessive force, regardless of whether particular students were able to maintain their seats afterwards.