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A Sleepy Campus In Crisis: Pepper Spray at UC Davis Sparks Online Uproar, Calls for a Chancellor’s Resignation

Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on November 21, 2011


In this image made from video, a police officer uses pepper spray as he walks down a line of Occupy demonstrators sitting on the ground at the University of California, Davis on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011.

When campus police demanded that 21-year-old Sophia Kamran and her fellow protesters dismantle the tents they had pitched on the quad at the University of California, Davis to protest tuition increases, they refused. Instead, as online videos of the incident depict, they sat peacefully with arms crossed as officers marched up to the protest line, one brandishing a can of pepper spray to those gathered, before dousing students repeatedly at point blank range. Protesters who covered their faces were sprayed under their shirts, and Kamran said one student vomited profusely after being sprayed directly in the mouth. “It was such an intense feeling. It felt like acid was being poured on our faces,” said Kamran, a philosophy and comparative literature major. “I was basically immobile and in a lot of pain.”

Friday’s pepper spray incident — which quickly went viral over the weekend after videos of the confrontation appeared online — seems to have only emboldened Occupiers at Davis, and some say it may fortify similar protests across the country. In Davis, protesters are using the well-publicized incident to focus attention on their pleas to end tuition hikes and to bring an end to heavy-handed police action at student protests. Students say they now expect thousands of people to show for a rally and general assembly on Monday, at which they will call for the resignation of the school’s chancellor and the UC Davis police chief. If Chancellor Linda Katehi declines, students plan to force the issue at an upcoming meeting of the UC Regents. “Students are much more engaged right now than we’ve ever seen,” said Nick Perrone, a graduate student and union organizer who is part of the movement at Davis. “I’ve heard from faculty that they’ve never seen Davis activated the way it is today.”(See a video of the confrontation at UC Davis.)

Katehi says she has no intention of resigning. She said Sunday that two university police officers had been put on leave and that she would speed up an investigation of the incident. Katehi, who declined an interview request, said in a statement that she felt students’ “outrage” and called the use of pepper spray “chilling.” Still, she says that she made the decision to forbid the camping protesters from remaining in the area because they were violating university rules and posed both safety and health concerns. Police chief Annette Spicuzza, who didn’t return requests for comment, has reportedly said the officers decided to use pepper spray because students encircled them. University of California President Mark Yudof, meanwhile, said he was “appalled” at the images of the incident.

Students’ outrage at being pepper sprayed is understandable. What makes the fallout of this altercation a watershed moment at Davis is the level of engagement by the faculty. Teachers have come out in support of the movement, with some strongly echoing the students’ demands for the Chancellor to resign. “You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis,” Nathan Brown, assistant professor of English, said in an open letter — a scathing rebuke that was also circulated widely on the Internet Saturday. “In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis. As such, I call upon you to resign immediately.” Bob Ostertag, a professor of technocultural studies and music, said an op-ed that the incident, along with others including a protest at which police allegedly hit students with batons at UC Berkeley, were evidence of an increased militarization of the state’s police forces. “These are not trivial matters,” Ostertag wrote. “This is a moment to stand up and be counted. I am proud to teach at a university where students have done so.”(Read about how the officers at UC Davis were placed on leave.)

Even professors who aren’t taking a leadership role in the movement expressed their shock. “There is absolute unity among faculty that this incident we’ve all witnessed was an outrage,” said Ari Kelman, a history professor who stressed that he was merely an observer of the events. Some say that such faculty and student fury follows a mounting sense of discontentment on campus about tuition hikes. “There’s been a sense of profound dissatisfaction and even dismay that’s been bubbling under the surface, and this episode seems like it’s just become the flashpoint,” Kelman said.

While protesters at Davis stress that their movement isn’t the same as Occupy Wall Street because they’re focusing less on an anti-big bank platform, their furor comes at a pivotal time for Occupiers across the nation. First, the Davis incident amplifies the uncertainty among authorities nationwide as to what use of force is warranted in responding to non-violent protesters. But more importantly, as the Occupy movement aims to regroup following the raids of encampments in several cities, the online reactions to the pepper spray episode may give protesters in other cities a boost of confidence — that even a traditionally quiet campus such as Davis can be whipped into an uproar, and that faculty can be inspired to join the cause. “Davis is a pretty sleepy place and it’s a pretty happy place,” Kelman says. “There’s a sense of turmoil right now that’s quite unusual.”

See photos of the Occupy movement across the world.



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