Monday, November 21, 2011


It would be a bit of an understatement to say that what happened at UC Davis on November 18th has been occupying my thoughts.  Of course by now you've heard what happened to a group of students at UC Davis protesting for the Occupy movement, the privatization of the University of California public education system, the proposed 81% tuition increases, and in solidarity with the UC Berkeley students and professors whose non-violent protests were met with batons and beatings earlier in the month.

These students were "occupying" The Quad (which is as you can imagine a large grassy public space in the middle of the university) with a small encampment of tents.  They had received permission from Chancellor Linda Katehi to break the "no camping on University grounds" rule on previous nights.  They went through the proper procedures for staging a peaceful protest.  They had the support of the Student Association.  Then on November 18th they received word from the Chancellor that they would have to remove their tents by 3:00 pm because of "serious health, safety and legal concerns".  Naturally, as their point was to stage a peaceful protest, which may include civil disobedience, they decided to stay.  The Chancellor sent in the University police to remove the tents and disband the protestors.  These police, who on normal days spend their time issuing tickets for rolling through University stop signs or not having a front and back light on your bike, came in with riot helmets, batons, and teargas guns.  According to reports and video, the students would not leave, the police started breaking down tents, a few students got arrested, and that's when the student protesters decided to sit in a circle around their tents and link arms.  And then this is what happened.

Here's another angle.

Students sitting in a circle on the ground had pepper spray shot at them multiple times, some down their throats, which led many to vomit and cough up blood.  Several of the students had to be seen by paramedics, and two were sent to the hospital.  Many had effects (in terms of continued burning) for over 24 hours.  This pepper spray is so strong and full of capaicinoid (the burning chemical in peppers) that it is  made chemically to get the burning agent up that high.  It's not quite as high as the concentration used in bear spray, but not far off either.

Professor Nathan Brown wrote an incredibly thoughtful letter to the Chancellor decrying the incident and calling for her resignation.  You should definitely read it.

This interview with one of the pepper-sprayed students is a must-read.  He/she gives the play-by-play from the protesters point of view.

From the Boulder Weekly:
Geoffrey Wildanger, 23, a graduate student in art history from Los Altos, said, "Three days ago, I was pepper sprayed. It hurt. It hurt a lot, but you know that already. What happened on Friday is not exceptional. Police brutality may not be the most common occurrence on UC Davis but it happens every day to poor people, women and people of color."
And this short article from the Davis Enterprise is quite interesting.

Professor Bob Ostertag has written an article about the incident on the Huffington Post.  This is a must-read.  Regarding the use of pepper spray use on criminals in prison:
[R]egulations prohibit the use of pepper spray on inmates in all circumstances other than the immediate threat of violence. If a prisoner is seated, by definition the use of pepper spray is prohibited. Any prison guard who used pepper spray on a seated prisoner would face immediate disciplinary review for the use of excessive force.
He also outlines one of the protesters' issues - the very large tuition increases.
 Just six years ago, tuition at the University of California was $5357. Tuition is currently $12,192. According to current proposals, it will be $22,068 by 2015-2016.
What this has to do with the Occupy Wall Street movement is quite simple.  The State of California in is a severe budget crisis.  You can easily argue that this budget crisis is exacerbated by severely inadequate tax revenues.  If corporations and the 1% paid more in taxes, the burdens of the budget crisis would not be felt so strongly by lower- and middle-class citizens.  Currently there are state worker furloughs, drastically reduced research budgets, and lay-offs.  Slashed funding for state parks (which actually bring in quite a bit of tourist revenue).  And slashed state funding to the "public" university system.  With this revenue gone, the expenses of the UC System has to be found in other ways.  Furloughs and salary and hiring freezes have been employed.  Unfortunately, that does not cover it.  With decreased state funding follows drastically reduced quality of education and/or increases in tuition.  The "public" university system gets dismantled.  Twenty thousand dollars a year for in-state tuition (currently out-of-state tuition in the UC system is $36,000 per year) is out of the league of a lot of qualified students .  Accruing these kinds of loans is a major burden for professions in which a university degree is essential, but pay is not stellar (I'm thinking accountants, nurses, and teachers here - and this is probably because these are the professions of my parents).*

Let's focus on elementary-high school teachers here for a second.  They're supposed to pay $22,000/year for their education in order to enter into jobs which pay barely more than that?  How are they supposed to pay those loans off?  How do we expect to have qualified teachers, especially in the math and sciences where people with these skills can get other jobs that actually pay?  Teachers' salaries are laughable on their own, but with the added burden of an education system that will not give them a true public option and the loans that go along with that?  As individuals, and as a society, we need people to do these jobs, but we expect them to do them practically for free.  Meanwhile, we will not take care of or educate their children, because they don't have enough capital to pay for it.  And if you can't pay, it's too bad for you, deadbeat.

Public universities, which were meant to bring a quality higher education out of the exclusive realm of the elite, are very quickly not going to exist in that respect at all.  I can barely imagine a scenario 10-20 years from now, given they way we're going now - by which I mean not valuing education as a nation at all, in which it is possible to get a decent education without paying private school prices and tuitions from kindergarten through to college.  And in that situation we've separated the rich from the poor even further.  Further than now.  And the education system now is already defined by inequities in class and capital.  The difference is now, with hard work, you can still get by and get ahead by merit.  That is eroding quickly.  "Eroding" isn't even an appropriate word.  "Destroy" is more accurate since it is more a function of neglect and greed than some natural process.

So let's review.  These students were protesting the use of violence against peaceful protestors at Berkeley, and the blatant inequalities that seem to be exponentially increasing in this country.  We've got corporations  that do everything they possibly can to turn the biggest profit.  That is the one and only bottom line.  Mortgage companies had been basically swindling people into horrible real estate decisions to make a buck, and these kids are pepper sprayed in the face for breaking the "no camping on campus" rule.  Based on all reports (excepting the University of California police department) and multiple videos showing what happened, the police were under no threat whatsoever.  Their shields weren't down, their body language in no way depicts people under threat, and the protesters seated on the ground with their heads bowed.  End of story.  The pepper spray (pepper spray so potent that you and I can't buy it) was used at a cattle prod, or as a punishment.  Haven't we set up a judicial system to fairly mete out punishment according to due process?  I was under that impression.  I was clearly naive.  What has happened is that due process was not required for these kids, and either the UC Davis administration or police department got to decide on punishment on the fly - punishment for unauthorized camping.  Meanwhile, the police officers who used what many of us would consider undue force without provocation, and what some of us would consider assault, are not going into the judicial system but instead are being "disciplined" by paid leave.

From the California Penal Code Section 12403.7:
(g) Any person who uses tear gas or tear gas weapons except in
self-defense is guilty of a public offense and is punishable by
imprisonment in a state prison for 16 months, or two or three years
or in a county jail not to exceed one year or by a fine not to exceed
one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment,
except that, if the use is against a peace officer, as defined in
Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2,
engaged in the performance of his or her official duties and the
person committing the offense knows or reasonably should know that
the victim is a peace officer, the offense is punishable by
imprisonment in a state prison for 16 months or two or three years or
by a fine of one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and
Now of course there needs to be an aspect of the law that protects police officers when they are doing their duties, and of course their job sometimes requires the use of force.  However force and violence are separate beasts - the use of violence should never, ever be taken lightly.  The use of violence when it is not in self-defense should be inexcusable, even for police officers.  Can you imagine what would have happened if one of the students sprayed Lt. Pike back with pepper spray?  Would that have counted as self-defense?  We all know that kid would be in jail.  Police should be protected by the law in limited instances and when they are doing their duties within the law, but they should not be above it.  That is not what we saw here, and it is not what we are seeing across the United States.

* As an aside, let's think about how much we each paid in tuition.  Personally, I paid $3500/year at my state university in 1997-2001.  Not because I couldn't get in anywhere else (in fact I was offered a partial scholarship at a private college in California), but because this in-state tuition is what I could afford without accruing loans.  If I had to pay $22,000/year for in-state tuition, I would currently be over $65,000 in debt.  With a Ph.D. in science, making about that in a yearly salary, that would be a pretty overwhelming situation.

1 comment:

mom said...

This is deplorable. That could have easily been you in that peaceful protest a few years ago. It makes me so made I just shake all over and I feel so helpless. Yeah for people who speak out like Professor Nathan Brown. It reminds me of the situation on campuses in the 70's in which students protested-however not always peacefully and were beaten and arrested. Have we learned nothing thru history. But to be peacefully demonstrating for the concern off affordable education and having pepper spray forced down their throats is totally incomprehensible, inconceivable and irresponsible.