DAVIS, Calif. — On Friday, November 18th at approximately 3:30 p.m. a group of unarmed, peaceful protesters on the University of California, Davis campus were pepper sprayed by UC Davis Police. Videos were quickly posted to YouTube and formal investigations have now begun. This story is now trending nationwide. What is not known is how this is affecting every day life on campus and those who are not involved in the protests.
When protests began earlier in the week in the form of a sit-in in Mrak Hall – the campus administration building – a few heads turned, but not very many. It seemed like an event that mainly faculty and graduate students were taking part in. Since the majority of our campus is made up of undergraduates, it did not come across as a very big deal. To my knowledge, the protest was in regards to the proposed 81% fee increase in tuition that, if passed, will take place during the next four years. The day the protest started, my Sociology professor asked us if we would like to take part in it. The class voted no. I voted no. I believed that this was merely a group of students who wanted attention and were protesting something that they did not have a deep knowledge of. Since I’m paying for my education I wanted the class to be taught, not canceled.
On Thursday the protest moved to the quad – a place where students generally go to relax, do homework, and spend time with their friends. It’s a peaceful place that is always quiet. From what I have been able to deduce, this protest was focused not only on fee increases, but also served the purpose of standing in solidarity against the alleged police brutality that took place on the UC Berkeley campus two weeks ago and a means to show support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The protest consisted of approximately 50 people. Chancellor Linda Katehi instructed 30 policemen clad in riot gear to march onto the quad and disassemble tents that had been erected by the protesters. The presence of the officers led to the crowd swelling in size to nearly 200 people.
The controversy came to a head after the tents were taken down by the police. Approximately 20 minutes later, following a decision by students to sit down on the ground and link arms, Lieutenant Pike of the UC Davis Police Department made the decision to pepper spray the sitting students.
“We were just sitting there peacefully,” Fatima Sbeih told The California Aggie.
Nine students and one other individual were then arrested. Two were hospitalized due to chemical burns. As of today, three police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave, including UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza and Lieutenant Pike. The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office has also been asked to step in. “Our hope was that the camp would go away and the students would remain to continue their rally and to continue with their expression of the issues,” Chancellor Katehi said in a statement to The California Aggie. “The intent was not to disperse the rally, because that is allowed.”
Chancellor Kathehi’s statement does not make it clear why the students were pepper sprayed after the removal of the tents. The police claim that they were surrounded and feared for their own safety. “The students had encircled the officers,” Chief Spicuzza said. “They needed to exit. They were looking to leave but were unable to get out.” The police seem to forget, however, that many of those who were present recorded the event. The officers were clearly not surrounded and had guns at their sides. They did not appear to be in any sort of danger.
The quad is no longer quiet, and no one is there to study. Today hundreds, if not thousands of people gathered to witness a rally in support of the protests. There was yelling. There was booing. There was cheering. Blame was placed without a second thought. What I didn’t hear or witness was a common cause.
The outrage the pepper-spraying incident has created amongst students and faculty is palpable throughout the campus. While I don’t agree with the decisions made on the part of the police, I also don’t necessarily agree with the protesters. I would like to know what they are really protesting and, in many cases, if the demonstrators are even aware what they are protesting.
People want to simply place blame and are thirsty for justice; and that opinion is not confined to the protesters at this point. It seems that the whole campus, the entire town, alumni, and a vast majority of faculty want action to take place and discipline to be handed down. I find it hard to believe that all of these people are truly informed, though. They weren’t there. They don’t know both sides of the story. They are merely caught up in the emotion of the moment. When more people become involved, chaos ensues and the most exaggerated account of the story is the one that will be accepted. Almost immediately after the incident took place, Junior Faculty member Nathan Brown issued an open letter to Chancellor Katehi ordering her to resign. “Your words express concern for the safety of our students,” he writes. “Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students.”
Simply telling Chancellor Katehi to resign seems a bit myopic. She was not the one holding the can of pepper spray and she did not tell the police to pepper spray students.
So, I don’t think Chancellor Katehi is to blame. What about the protesters? Not particularly. Are the police officers to blame? Not really. Individually, none of these parties are to blame. In retrospect, however, it seems Chancellor Katehi should have been more specific with the officers, since the tents were supposed to be the only objects removed, not the people. The protesters should have disassembled their tents when they were asked to in the first place. Lieutenant Pike should have thought about the backlash pepper spraying the students would have in a society that is dominated by technology where events can spread in a matter of seconds. I also find it hard to believe that each officer on duty at the protest was in complete agreement with the decision to use such force against the protesters; at least one of them should have stepped up and stopped Lieutenant Pike.
I truly hope that this event does not lead to unjust stereotyping of campus police, though, unfortunately, it seems to be in the process of happening. This broad, uncomplicated viewpoint creates paranoia that leads to constant skepticism. It is ironic that we as a nation are always trying to promote peace amongst other countries, yet can’t even establish peace within our own country, let alone a single university. Kristen Stoneking, who escorted Chancellor Katehi out of a meeting after students had assembled outside the building, asserted in an open note on Facebook, “We are trapped when we assent to a culture that for decades, and particularly since 9/11, has allowed law enforcement to have more and more power which has moved us into an era of hyper-criminalization.” Nothing rings more true to me, than this statement.
People seem to have a way of remembering the worst and forgetting the best. UC Davis was known for its cutting edge medical research, science programs, veterinary medicine, and ranks within the top 10 public universities nationwide.
Now we are known as the campus where police pepper sprayed students.