Lewis’ Blog

20 November 2011

In response to the incident on the campus of the University of California at Davis, Nov. 18, 2011

Filed under: Davis, gatherings, social injustice — Tags: — lewis @ 11:24 pm

A basic requirement of a university campus is that it be a safe place for its students to learn and to express themselves. It is unacceptable that a peaceful group has been dispersed by campus police, merely for expressing political dissent in a reasonable way. By her own admission, Chancellor Katehi is responsible for ordering this dispersion, and she is to be considered accountable for it.

In addition to this unacceptable repression of freedom of expression on a college campus, a greater wrong has been perpetrated in this case. Not only were students dispersed, but they were violently dispersed. A group of students involved in a non-violent and inoffensive protest were assaulted by police officers with pepper-spray as they sat on the ground. In some cases, these officers forcibly exposed students’ faces so that the pepper spray would be maximally painful. This violence was enormously disproportionate to the task the officers were sent to accomplish. Their task — nominally to clear away a few tents and their attendant non-violent protesters — in no way called for the use of a chemical intended to inflict pain in dangerous situations. The officers themselves were in no danger.  Their persons were not hurt nor threatened, and their movements were unhindered.

UC Davis campus police are allowed to be on the campus of UC Davis to protect and serve its population. In absolutely no case should officers of this organization perpetrate violence against peaceable and unthreatening UC Davis students. The callous and violent actions of the UC Davis police force in this incident were utterly unacceptable, and deserve the highest condemnation.

As if this all weren’t bad enough, the university administration, and notably Chancellor Katehi, has done a terrible job responding to the injustice. In a statement a day after the incident, Katehi explains that the student encampment on the campus violated university policy (it would be interesting to hear exactly what policies are involved here), and that such violations could not be tolerated. Although she had expressed sympathy for the protesters’ cause in an earlier statement, she apparently did not think that this cause was of enough importance to permit peaceful civil disobedience on a university campus. The protesters may have been violating university policy, but sending the police against a peaceful group of students should be considered a gross violation of university policy.

In the same statement Katehi explains that the decision to break up the campus protest was made due to “concern for the safety and health of the students involved in the protest, as well as other students on our campus”. The best that can be said about this is that the decision was misinformed. The protest was known to be a non-violent one, with no prospect to endanger safety. Sending the police to break up such a protest is bound to result in a more unstable, less safe situation for all involved — and of course the ensuing events can speak for themselves.

Katehi even comments that the use of pepper spray against students “raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this.” The use of pepper spray in this incident raises no questions. It was clearly unethical, and clearly a gross overreaction to the particular situation.

Katehi claims “full responsibility” for what happened, and expresses “sadness” about the situation, but she has yet to offer so much as an apology. Instead, she has formed a task force to investigate the issue and get back to her in 30 days.

Forming a task force to investigate the course of events leading up to this incident is a good idea. It is important to understand exactly what happened, and to adjust university policy to better serve its students, its faculty, its staff, and the state that the university represents. Forming a task force is important, but it is not enough.

When I first heard the call for Chancellor Katehi to resign, I thought it premature. It was then unclear where exactly the blame should fall for this incident. And it is still somewhat unclear — a situation which hopefully the task force will remedy. But Katehi’s timid and out-of-touch response to the injustice of this incident and to the anger that it has engendered in the university community have caused her to lose her legitimacy as a leader. I therefore join the ranks of those who believe that the chancellor should step down at this time.

It has also been made public that two police officers have been put on “administrative leave” for using pepper spray on the students. In my opinion, this is not enough. What these officers did was unethical, and (I hope) illegal, and they should be held accountable for their actions. Moreover, their superiors who allowed this incident to take place should be held accountable for their role.

It will be interesting to see how this incident progresses in the coming days. At present the situation remains very much unresolved, and I for one am quite dissatisfied with the university’s handling of the incident up to this point.

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