Police use of pepper spray to disperse “occupy” demonstrators at UC Davis has set off a firestorm of protest, the suspension of two officers, and calls for the school’s chancellor to resign.
Video of the incident at the University of California campus, showing demonstrators sitting peacefully on a sidewalk as officers sprayed them with a red mist of pepper spray at very close range, quickly went viral.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, who initially voiced support for the officers Friday, soon backtracked.
“I spoke with students this weekend, and I feel their outrage,” Chancellor Katehi said Sunday in a statement announcing that two officers had been put on administrative leave.
“I have also heard from an overwhelming number of students, faculty, staff and alumni from around the country,” she said. “I am deeply saddened that this happened on our campus, and as chancellor, I take full responsibility for the incident. However, I pledge to take the actions needed to ensure that this does not happen again. I feel very sorry for the harm our students were subjected to and I vow to work tirelessly to make the campus a more welcoming and safe place.”
Katehi said she is accelerating the timetable for a task force to investigate the events surrounding the arrests of 10 protesters Friday, including communications from the police to the administration, according to the university statement Sunday. She set a deadline of 30 days for the task force, which will include representatives of faculty, students and staff, to be chosen and convened this coming week.
Such contrition and quick response was not enough for many in the UC Davis student body and faculty.
After a Saturday evening press conference, Katehi had to wait two hours before walking through a gantlet of students that had been chanting for her resignation. The board of the Davis Faculty Association quickly organized a petition campaign calling for Katehi’s ouster as chancellor.
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The story began Thursday when students set up tents on the UC Davis quad as part of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and also in protest of recent state university and college tuition and fee hikes officials say are necessary in light of California’s dire budget situation.
Setting up overnight encampments violates university policy, and the initial police action was to remove tents after a Friday afternoon deadline. That’s when several hundred demonstrators gathered, some of them sitting down on a paved walkway.
According to police and university officials, the officers (35 or so) felt surrounded and threatened, even though there is no video or other evidence indicating that.
Organizers had said that the protest action was to express solidarity with demonstrators at the University of California at Berkeley, a point highlighted in the faculty call for Katehi’s resignation.
“Given the recent use of excessive force by police against ‘occupy’ protesters at UC Berkeley and elsewhere, the Chancellor must have anticipated that, by authorizing police action, she was effectively authorizing their use of excessive force against peaceful UCD student protestors,” the Davis Faculty Association said in a statement Saturday. “The Chancellor’s role is to enable open and free inquiry, not to suppress it.”
In the New York Times over the weekend, UC Berkeley professor Robert Hass, a former poet laureate of the United States, described his experience being injured when he and his wife Brenda Hillman attended an “occupy” demonstration there.
Caught up in the crowd and unable to move backward as police had ordered, Ms. Hillman was knocked to the ground and Mr. Hass was struck by police clubs.
“My wife bounced nimbly to her feet,” he wrote. “I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me – it must be a generational reaction – was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.”
“My ribs didn’t hurt very badly until the next day and then it hurt to laugh, so I skipped the gym for a couple of mornings, and I was a little disappointed that the bruises weren’t slightly more dramatic,” Hass wrote. “It argued either for a kind of restraint or a kind of low cunning in the training of the police. They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.”