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.

15 thoughts on “Threats

  1. I have a hard time understanding too, but don’t quite “can’t” understand.

    Let’s assume some modicum of good faith on the part of the Chancellors; i.e., they didn’t actively order police brutality on the protesters. Perhaps the Chancellors don’t realize the extent to which even campus police (let alone “real” police) have been militarized, especially over the past decade, as part of the Wars on Terror/Drugs? And that using pepper spray and other “non-lethal” (sic) weapons are Standard Operating Procedure to disperse/punish non-compliance? They should know, mind you, but maybe they don’t? Forget the pepper spray; just look at these guys fully decked out in ridiculous storm trooper riot gear against a group with not the slightest history or indication of violence. “Encircled and threatened,” indeed.

    Whatever the Chancellor’s reasons and expectations for initially calling out the police, her response is even more pathetic and weaselly, as evidenced by the language in this letter:

    The problem: “Troubling incidents”! Menacing “non-campus affiliates”! Solution: A “task force”! 30 days! Pathetic.

  2. It is simple: preemptive strike! Get rid of the protesters as soon as possible before it becomes a serious problem and threaten the ordinary and daily life pattern of non-protesters.

    When academics get positions like chancellor they want to demonstrate that they can run the system in front of their employees (in addition to politicians from outside) who have been in their jobs for much longer than these academics. Toughness mentality kicks in with the help of those employees. So in my view these event does happen even without pressure from outside university.

  3. Edit: the first copy of the letter that I read said the task force’s “thorough report” would be due within 30 days. Re-reading, I see that it is now 90 days. I suspect that the Chancellor will not remain in office long enough to receive it.

  4. “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?”

    It’s about $$$. Apparently the in-state tuition at UC Berkeley has gone from $6,000 to $13,000 in the past six years. There is a plan to raise it 81% in the next five years. If an Occupy UC movement were to really take off and the students organized, they could easily stand in the way of these tuition increases as well as bring national attention to this issue, which is essentially the destruction of the great UC system as we know it.

  5. I am not convinced by the explanation of “occupy theory.” After the first round of huge budget cuts and subsequent tuition hikes (Fall of 2009) there were significant campus protests, which became national news, and which were followed by a wave of sympathetic op-eds in the major newspapers, on how great the UC system was and how destructive the cuts were going to be (the UC faculty does have a few connections). Ultimately, the governor was able to slightly reduce the UC budget cuts. With a Democratic governor, I can only assume that a replay of that playbook would be good for the University.

  6. Steve, the key word in the letter is lawful protests, in other words you cannot stay on public or private property to protest, that is what they use as an excuse to remove the protesters. That begs the question, where should the students protests if not on public or private property? In their homes? Or on the moon?

  7. I recall seeing a summary of the handling of student protest in the 1960’s: UC Berkeley tried to suppress demonstrations and had massive problems while Stanford just let them happen without much incident.

    It seems that these university presidents (and campus cops) didn’t learn the lesson.

  8. Another thought: maybe the Chancellor is a secret fan of the Occupy movement, and knows from history that the best way for it to gain prominence and sympathy is by sending armed thugs to abuse the protesters. She is so supportive that she is willing to get herself fired for the cause! A true hero….

  9. Luca,

    I think the chancellors were actually afraid. Imagine a big meeting at the chancellors office ahead of the demonstrations. Various officials in campus express their worries about the demonstrations. The lawyers say the University will be liable for violence and disease spread (by non students protestors) at the encampments and the police concurs. Then the question goes to the police and they are asked if they can handle demonstrations like this. The police say yes we can. Note that the lawyers have to justify their high salaries. The police has to justify investing in anti-riot units / equipment / training so it is all set to go.

    Not to say it is easy – but if the leadership of the campus and the police were braver this could have probably been dealt with better. Top administrators should have been at the camps during the demonstration and also during the evacuation if they decided it is a must. It would have required leadership of the chancellors to be there but they missed an opportunity. Similarly, the police could have decided to hand pick and arrest people one by one by non-armed police officers – even better if this was done by the heads of campus police. Again – it requires courage but is possible.

    I would speculate that some of the more violent acts by police were performed by police officers who were worried about their job security and wanted to show how effective they are. That might have been a different kind of fear that played role.

    The summary of my theory is simple: when people are afraid they become more violent, often against their best interests.

  10. Pingback: OWS in Theory | Healthy Algorithms

  11. Thank you Luca, I was hoping you’d write something about this.

    I have nothing much to add, so I’ll just add that James Fallows has extensive ongoing coverage of the UC Davis incident and other related issues in his blog.

  12. This brings tears into my eyes. What kind of democracy is this supposed to be? Quantitatively, this is certainly harmless compared with, say, the behavior of the Syrian regime towards protesters, but qualitatively this kind of reaction is no more democratic, or civilized, or advanced.

    I cannot understand, in the same sense as Luca described, why the chancellor did not choose to talk to the protesters, or have public discussions with them, organize extra lectures with the protester given by interested faculty member, or simply sit down with them and listen to them. And it’s not only the chancellor, it’s a whole chain of people, who chose violence over communication. The police officers who use the pepper spray are only the last and most obvious people in this chain. Whoever was in command of these officers could have ordered them not to use violence. Damn, even their protest training should have taught them never to use violence in peaceful situations.

    Ha, but why talk to people who disagree with the status quo, arguing is just too difficult. Violence is the easier, less complicated way. Just get these annoying students out of campus as soon as possible. They don’t belong there anyway.

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