Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

I’m Confused

Image courtesy AP / The Enterprise, Wayne Tilcock

I’ve run the gamut of emotions in response to the UC Davis pepper-spraying incident. I went from shock to rage to despair and have now settled into a state of bafflement.

Seriously, I’m really fucking confused.

What in the world do institutions like UC Davis gain from pepper-spraying students? When has violence toward peaceful protesters ever done anything but galvanize a movement? Were the chancellors and the police officers really thinking, “This’ll show them–if we pepper-spray these kids they’ll all go home and think twice about ever protesting again”?

For fuck’s sake. Protesting is what college students do. It’s as much a part of the U.S. college experience as freshman composition. Who in their right mind calls in police in riot gear to a university protest?

During my four years at the University of Texas at Austin (1996-2000), there seemed to be a protest every other day. People demonstrated in the name of labor inequality, a lack of rights for the LGBT community, meat eating, affirmative action (for and against), protecting the Edwards Aquifer, and against a Barnes & Noble replacing the local bookstore. Some protests were small, but some were huge.

I never once saw police react violently at these protests, even the ones that lasted for days and involved tents. There was a police presence, but they mostly just stood by and watched. They actually seemed to be there primarily to protect the protesters from anyone who might, you know, try to deprive them of their right to exercise free speech.

There is, of course, a historical precedent for violent reactions to peaceful protests. In the last few days the UC Davis incident has reminded many of Kent State and the violent responses to civil rights protesters in the 1960s. But for a while there, at least, it seemed that exercising one’s right to free speech was actually safe again.

At the university where I’m currently enrolled (in California), I’ve also witnessed plenty of protesting. One protest involved the school’s use of sweatshop labor to produce its official clothing. Students camped out in front of the president’s office. At one point they were told that if they didn’t disperse, they would be suspended. Their parents were also called (a gross violation of privacy). One parent reportedly told her daughter, “Stay right where you are.”

People were outraged at that level of response. But the idea that those students would have been beaten with batons, or had pepper spray forced down their throats, was pretty much unthinkable. They were college students. Protesting was what they were supposed to do.

What happened? When did students peacefully assembling on college campuses come to be seen as a threat? What is different about these protests?

Plenty of others have responded to that question eloquently. Reasons cited include the militarization of police forces (I particularly like the contrasting images in this article, of an unarmed police officer leading a student away at Columbia, and the UC Davis police, who look like they’ve ready to face down an army). The one thing that I keep coming back to is this: maybe these protests at Berkely and UC Davis, protests over outrageous tuition hikes and a growing income inequality, hit a little too close to home. Maybe the government has read its history and knows that protests which begin in places like Berkeley have a way of striking a chord with the nation. Maybe protests that have nothing to do with the university itself are fine, but when students protest something that actually might make people look a little more closely at how universities are run, they have to be silenced.

And then of course there’s the post-9/11 world, in which every gathering of more than two people in a public space seems to constitute a threat to public safety. In which linking arms is apparently NOT a form of non-violent protest. The behavior of the UC Davis police is inexcusable, but perhaps we should look more closely at the training they received–training which, I imagine, taught them to treat all groups, even college students sitting on the ground, as potential terrorist threats.

I’m still confused. And I don’t mean for my confusion to make light of what is truly a tragic situation that should provoke all kinds of outrage. But at this point my rage is all worn out, and I’m going for baffled.

In the meantime, here’s a video that makes sense. Lots and lots of fucking sense. When I grow grim over images of Penn State students rioting in favor of a man who enabled a child rapist, I look at this video instead. Thank you, UC Davis students and faculty, for bringing a little sanity to an insane world.

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2 comments on “I’m Confused

  1. Mike
    November 22, 2011

    I’m not sure of the extent to which police are allowed to use force to enforce the law, and what the law says about rights to peaceful assembly. Does the right to peaceful assembly extend to every location, or are there some places where that right is curtailed? I don’t know. Since they’re “investigating”, it looks like these rules are unclear even to officials. Certainly pepper spraying sends a chilling message. But I don’t know what the law states on the matter when protesters refuse an order to disperse. Do the police even have the right to give that order? That’s another thing I’d have to be clear on.

  2. gradland
    November 22, 2011

    Good question. Judging by this article (, it would seem that the UC Davis police don’t have much of a case for their use of pepper spray and will very likely be facing a lawsuit. Even if protesters refuse an order to disperse, as long as they don’t pose a threat, there is no call for excessive use of force.

    As to whether the police even have the right to order a crowd to disperse, it would seem that they do if the crowd poses a safety or public health risk. Sadly, that reason has been twisted around a lot, with police forcibly removing protesters and claiming that they posed a threat to public safety when they actually didn’t.

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