UC Davis, II

Some further thoughts on the UC Davis incident:

I think the most troubling response I’ve heard to the pepper spraying is the idea that the police are totally justified in using any level of force to ensure compliance with any law. This is simply not acceptable in a democratic society like ours. Even law-breaking citizens retain basic protections against government coercion and force. That principle is central to the Constitution itself. Arguments that the police were justified because they had warned the students of the use of force or because students disobeyed a police order contradict the fundamental premises of our society.

Many responses to the UC Davis incident (and Occupy movement in general) demonstrate a lack of understanding of non-violent civil disobedience and it’s aims. People wonder “Why doesn’t the Occupy movement leave these public spaces, apply for some permits, hold some marches, and find other ways to get their point across?” But occupying these public spaces is part of the point. Civil disobedience is intended to challenge the legitimacy of the system. It forces local leaders to choose sides: to either allow the non-violent protestors to continue peacefully disrupting the system or to use force to disrupt the protests.

The events in NY, Oakland, and UC Davis are examples of local leaders choosing to side with the system. In doing so, they have themselves contributed to the aims of the protestors by highlighting the ways in which the system undermines itself with excess. In the name of ‘health and safety’ police used pepper spray on demonstrators whom they could easily step over! They were willing to violate the constitutional rights of college students sitting on a campus quad in an attempt to silence or redirect the means of their message. That should trouble even the most cynical among us.

Personally, I have been conflicted about the Occupy movement. I see in their grievances about Wall Street and the 1% mirrors of my own concern that capitalism continues to trump citizenship as the guiding model of our government. But I’m also deeply committed to our (admittedly imperfect) system of government. I believe that elections continue to be the best way for citizens to shape government. I believe that expertise is helpful and even necessary in running government in a complex society. (Here I depart from both the Occupy and Tea Party crowds.) At heart, I am a reformer rather than a radical. But sometimes we need radicals to remind us what our ideals are and how far our system is from meeting them.

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