Friday, November 25, 2011

Solidarity Comrades! Pepper Spray Galore

I did not think that I would have an opinion that is compared to fascism or Naziism.  Having read so much about the news going on around the rest of the world, it is an odd experience for the news to be where I am.  It is something that makes me even more skeptical of what I may read, considering the onslaught of lies and hyperbole from an issue that I do not think is worthy of anything more than local concern.  I have been relieved to hear that many of my friends and colleagues are similarly disgusted with the bloated coverage of a relatively trivial event.

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.

Given that this is probably the most popular perspective that the public has been exposed to, it is of little surprise that they are vehemently outraged.  The above paragraph is part of Assistant English Professor Nathan Brown's open letter calling for Chancellor Katehi's resignation.  It would seem to be a scathing report of police brutality that deserves serious scrutiny.  The only problem is that none of it is true.  The police did not use batons to push students apart.  They did not push people's heads into the ground.  They did not hold anyone who was pepper-sprayed.  There were unfortunately two students hospitalized for treatment, but there is no indication that anyone was seriously injured.  No one had pepper spray forced down his or her throat.  The pepper spraying may have been an excessive use of force on the protesters, but it was no massive display of unprovoked police brutality.  Professor Brown's histrionic rhetoric has obfuscated the situation.  No, Chancelor Katehi and police forces are not "the primary threat to the health and safety of our university community." 

It is not so much the message of the Occupy Wall Street protesters that I have a problem with.  I am not going to hide the fact that I am unabashedly liberal, and I do see a problem with the rampant inequality in the country.  I am not going to get very political here, except say that I think that the movement has oversimplified the problem and the "solutions" are implausible and economically illogical.  Unfortunately, instead of developing a more coherent agenda, the protesters turned a legitimate gripe into a "non-violent" war against the police and the "system."  The pepper spray victims have been recognized as heroes in the eye of the media and public opinion.  Regardless of the legality or the morality of the police's actions, I think that it is simply wrong to view disobedient citizens as "heroes" for ignoring police orders.

Most people are simply lacking in perspective of the situation.  The "Occupy Davis" movement had gained little headway, regularly displaying a couple of broken signs and a few tents in a park in downtown Davis.  The police made no attempt to disband this.  However, when some students decided to set up tents on the quad, the administration told them that this was not permissible.  I do not think that it unreasonable to prevent the center of campus from becoming a tent city.  This does not diminish the right of students to express themselves freely.  However, even after days of warning, the students refused to move their tents.  They were given a final deadline of 3:00 on Friday and they still refused to budge.  The police were called in to dispatch of the tents and evacuate the protesters from the quad.  I do think that a riot squad was excessive; the movement was still relatively small.  However, it is a bit misleading to say that the protesters were simply peaceful.  They were breaking campus rules, and would not budge even when the police came.  I was not actually present when the police arrived, so I cannot give a full account on what transpired.  However, I can offer some perspective based on eyewitness accounts and Youtube videos.  

After the police took down the tents, the protesters proceeded to form a blockade on the quad sidewalk. I guess that is what they call peaceful civil disobedience.  However, I do not think that it unreasonable to prevent such a blockade and it is certainly not an assault on free speech to do so.  Many of the protesters seemed to heckle the police, with a few shouting "Fuck the police, from Davis to Greece."  The police attempted on multiple occasions to convince the protesters to unlink arms and leave the quad.  There was no sudden police action on the heckling crowd.  After a three-minute warning, a policeman showed the crowd a pepper spray bottle and shook it for a couple of seconds.  Instead of dispersing, the protesters held firmly and most put their heads down.  Among the protesters who were finally arrested, at least one went limp so he would be "violently" dragged away, while another resisted by curling up into a ball.  Anyone who thinks that this is a violent suppression of speech needs to get some perspective on actual police states, like Egypt and Syria.  If the pepper spraying at Davis is one of the most significant examples of police brutality in America, then there is no police brutality in America.  There are many tangible problems in America, and we must do more than link arms and deride the authorities and the privileged to solve them. 


  1. dude, I'm liking it! You do a good job unobfuscatifying the issue.

    Still, I'm not convinced that this wasn't a violent suppression of speech, even though it may seem small compared to more brutal examples. I think it still reflects an un-isolated incident of police brutality in the States, though this consideration kind of distracts from the main thrust of the Occupy movement.

    Also, depending on whom you ask, the occupy movement does have some concrete goals (I think it does?), though they may not be made clear by the average protest(or).

  2. I guess it depends on what you call violent and what you call speech. I just think that the incident was minimally violent and linking arms to defend the right to have tents on campus isn't protected speech. This past week, there were people saying some pretty extreme things at the rally and at the Chancellor's town hall. I felt like the leanings of the movement were more towards a system of anarcho-communism than a more-regulated, more progressive, but still relatively free market. About 60% of the people there favored a blanket removal of all cops from campus. The English professor actually was a pretty good representation of the typical opinions: . I'm not going to get into the goals of the movement, but the Tea Party was able to get its message across without instigating violence. I don't see why the other side can't do the same.

  3. There is a clear demand, and that's "Make the banks and the rich refund UC system/stop tuition hikes." The problem is that there is too much emphasis on the encampment/protest/police... this gathers attention, but on the wrong thing. Blaming the police is completely counterproductive, what they need to do is go to the core demand and make it happen without looking like stupid angry students. Legitimacy and professionalism-- petition, let voices be heard, without all the violence and childish resistance or claims like "fuck the police."