Wednesday, November 23, 2011


By now the photos of the campus cop at UC Davis pepper spraying passive, seated students has made its way around the world. Most people agree (with the exception of predictably obstinate cable talking head Bill O’Reilly) that the incident was uncalled for and unduly aggressive on the part of the campus police. Rational humans know not to spray chemicals in the faces of students seated in an outdoor area on their own campus. And those same rational people wonder now why the campus police showed up in full riot gear when there was clearly no indication of violence or anything but peaceful protest.

Close up photos of the still unidentified cop show an average looking guy, probably in his 40s. He’s not old enough to have the images burned into his memory of cops in the 1960s South spraying civil rights demonstrators with fire hoses.
He probably wasn’t around when students at Kent State were fired upon with live ammunition by the National Guard. It is likely he has no knowledge of dioxon-contaminated herbicide Agent Orange being routinely sprayed during the Vietnam War, reportedly resulting in hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese suffering health issues, not to mention American veterans who have suffered lifelong effects from the chemical. Would it have made any difference to the unidentified campus cop if he had these frames of reference? Hard to say. But did we as a society learn nothing from the above-mentioned incidents? It is inhumane for one human to spray another human with anything, when the intention is humiliation or bodily harm.

What is clear is the absolute violation of the students’ constitutional rights. As a gentle reminder, here is the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Were not free speech and free assembly rights abridged here? It’s tough to validate the campus police actions when you watch carefully what really happened here. Watch for yourself:

Notice the campus cop hold the canister up and present it to the crowd before he sprays the protestors. One might say he was showboating, exercising a level of power he does not really have. Now, after the fact, one wonders why it took the university administration fully three days to suspend him from his duties. And why is it that the Chancellor, who reportedly directed the campus police to disperse the protesting crowd, did not address the student body until Monday, when the spraying occurred on Friday. Further, since the students were not exercising aggression or violence, why are none of them or their parents speaking up about the violation of their civil rights?

Throughout the U.S. in recent weeks there have been reports of police brutality, unjustifiable arrests, unreasonable use of force on the part of law enforcement and poorly executed crowd control. The job of police in urban areas is not to function as physical or ideological adversaries to the citizenry. Yet that is what we are seeing coast to coast. On college campuses, for the first time in decades there are signs of true student activism. Where better to protest governmental missteps and ill-advised decisions than on campuses where ideas are the foundation of the institutions? Yet at UC Davis it appears ideas are being challenged, rather than welcomed, and administrators somehow feel threatened by a few kids seated on a sidewalk.

The still unidentified cop should be fired, and with him should go his superiors. If Chancellor Linda Katehi (below, left) ordered or approved of the use of force she overstepped her authority. The message all of them sent to their students is simply that in America one cannot peacefully protest that which he or she deems unacceptable.
Somebody forgot to tell Katehi and her police force that if there is one place in America where the free exchange and expression of ideas should be encouraged – popular or not – it should be our universities. Have UC’s administrators become so caught up in the business end of education that they have lost sight of the importance of student’s questioning the status quo?

It appears the pepper-spraying campus cop did not break any laws by using chemical dispersants. Still, how many unwritten moral laws were ignored in that one momentary act? Did the university administration not have an ethical obligation to allow or even encourage its student population to exercise their first amendment rights? Rights. Plural. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

In fairness, and to her credit, Katehi addressed the students on Monday and apologized on behalf of the university. She spoke of not wanting to be a chancellor in a university that conducts itself as UC did on Friday. She said she wants to get to know the students. Her short address seemed heartfelt, but at this writing, the cops involved in this injustice are still on the payroll, although suspended. And why is it that it took this heinous act on the part of an over-zealous campus cop to cause the chancellor to finally want to get to know her students? Was there no reason to get to know them when all was calm and orderly?

The higher ups at UC Davis have a lot of explaining and apologizing to do. And the students who participated in the demonstration must learn to continually stand up – or sit down – for their beliefs. It is about passion, commitment and justice. One wonders how the adults at UC Davis forgot that last Friday afternoon.

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