Faculty and students at UC Davis, and in a lot of other places, are outraged at the campus police who pepper-sprayed a group of students who were peacefully sitting down.

In their official response, the campus police said that the police officer in question felt “encircled and threatened” by the students, which reminds me of a classic South Park episode.

The context at UC Davis was that Chancellor Katehi had allowed “Occupy UC Davis” students to camp overnight on campus (which is ordinarily forbidden) for one night, but then sent them a message the following day that they were to disband, and she sent the police to enforce the decision. At Berkeley, Chancellor Birgeneau had similarly sent the police to disband an occupation, resulting in beat poets.

I can’t understand the rationale for these decisions. I don’t say “I don’t understand” as a passive-aggressive way of meaning “I disagree;” I genuinely don’t get what is going on. Chancellors are smart people, former professors, who are politically savvy and who care very much about students, or at least care very much about their relationship with the students. What could be so wrong with some students camping on campus that makes it, on balance, a rational decision to disband those camps with violence? Is it the Regents who are strongly against occupations? Is there a worry that an occupation would be unpopular with state officials, at a time when the California state budget has again a multi-billion shortfall that will require further budget cuts?

Edited to add: Another interesting question is why the police uses violence against peaceful protesters. After all, high-ranking police officials are themselves smart and politically savvy people, and such strategies are bad PR but also bad policing. Next time the campus police is called to diffuse a tense situation on campus, their presence will actually add to the tension. This interesting article by Alexis Madrigal (thanks to Sanjay Hukku for directing me to it) traces a change of police strategies to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.