Indignation

Some thoughts on Thanksgiving food and decorating later today.  First, I must say that I find righteous indignation to be a good way to avoid the 6 minute syndrome.  In college, I was extremely active in student government (and any other group that would have me – I am so Rachel Berry in this way).  This week has provided me with a number of moments to step outside of my thoughts and focus on those things I hold most dear.  Highest among them is political freedom.  Last Saturday, a number of peaceful students protesting on the UC-Davis campus were treated with nothing short of brute force.

The picture speaks for itself.  So I did what I usually do and spent some time writing a letter to the Chancellor.  And then today, I read this:

Open Letter to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi

I am a junior faculty member at UC Davis. I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, and I teach in the Program in Critical Theory and in Science & Technology Studies. I have a strong record of research, teaching, and service. I am currently a Board Member of the Davis Faculty Association. I have also taken an active role in supporting the student movement to defend public education on our campus and throughout the UC system. In a word: I am the sort of young faculty member, like many of my colleagues, this campus needs. I am an asset to the University of California at Davis.

You are not.

I write to you and to my colleagues for three reasons:

1) to express my outrage at the police brutality which occurred against students engaged in peaceful protest on the UC Davis campus today

2) to hold you accountable for this police brutality

3) to demand your immediate resignation

Today you ordered police onto our campus to clear student protesters from the quad. These were protesters who participated in a rally speaking out against tuition increases and police brutality on UC campuses on Tuesday—a rally that I organized, and which was endorsed by the Davis Faculty Association. These students attended that rally in response to a call for solidarity from students and faculty who were bludgeoned with batons, hospitalized, and arrested at UC Berkeley last week. In the highest tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, those protesters had linked arms and held their ground in defense of tents they set up beside Sproul Hall. In a gesture of solidarity with those students and faculty, and in solidarity with the national Occupy movement, students at UC Davis set up tents on the main quad. When you ordered police outfitted with riot helmets, brandishing batons and teargas guns to remove their tents today, those students sat down on the ground in a circle and linked arms to protect them.

What happened next?

Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students. Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.

What happened next?

Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.

This is what happened. You are responsible for it.

You are responsible for it because this is what happens when UC Chancellors order police onto our campuses to disperse peaceful protesters through the use of force: students get hurt. Faculty get hurt. One of the most inspiring things (inspiring for those of us who care about students who assert their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly) about the demonstration in Berkeley on November 9 is that UC Berkeley faculty stood together with students, their arms linked together. Associate Professor of English Celeste Langan was grabbed by her hair, thrown on the ground, and arrested. Associate Professor Geoffrey O’Brien was injured by baton blows. Professor Robert Hass, former Poet Laureate of the United States, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, was also struck with a baton. These faculty stood together with students in solidarity, and they too were beaten and arrested by the police. In writing this letter, I stand together with those faculty and with the students they supported.

One week after this happened at UC Berkeley, you ordered police to clear tents from the quad at UC Davis. When students responded in the same way—linking arms and holding their ground—police also responded in the same way: with violent force. The fact is: the administration of UC campuses systematically uses police brutality to terrorize students and faculty, to crush political dissent on our campuses, and to suppress free speech and peaceful assembly. Many people know this. Many more people are learning it very quickly.

You are responsible for the police violence directed against students on the UC Davis quad on November 18, 2011. As I said, I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation on these grounds.

On Wednesday November 16, you issued a letter by email to the campus community. In this letter, you discussed a hate crime which occurred at UC Davis on Sunday November 13. In this letter, you express concern about the safety of our students. You write, “it is particularly disturbing that such an act of intolerance should occur at a time when the campus community is working to create a safe and inviting space for all our students.” You write, “while these are turbulent economic times, as a campus community, we must all be committed to a safe, welcoming environment that advances our efforts to diversity and excellence at UC Davis.”

I will leave it to my colleagues and every reader of this letter to decide what poses a greater threat to “a safe and inviting space for all our students” or “a safe, welcoming environment” at UC Davis: 1) Setting up tents on the quad in solidarity with faculty and students brutalized by police at UC Berkeley? or 2) Sending in riot police to disperse students with batons, pepper-spray, and tear-gas guns, while those students sit peacefully on the ground with their arms linked? Is this what you have in mind when you refer to creating “a safe and inviting space?” Is this what you have in mind when you express commitment to “a safe, welcoming environment?”

I am writing to tell you in no uncertain terms that there must be space for protest on our campus. There must be space for political dissent on our campus. There must be space for civil disobedience on our campus. There must be space for students to assert their right to decide on the form of their protest, their dissent, and their civil disobedience—including the simple act of setting up tents in solidarity with other students who have done so. There must be space for protest and dissent, especially, when the object of protest and dissent is police brutality itself. You may not order police to forcefully disperse student protesters peacefully protesting police brutality. You may not do so. It is not an option available to you as the Chancellor of a UC campus. That is why I am calling for your immediate resignation.

Your words express concern for the safety of our students. Your actions express no concern whatsoever for the safety of our students. I deduce from this discrepancy that you are not, in fact, concerned about the safety of our students. Your actions directly threaten the safety of our students. And I want you to know that this is clear. It is clear to anyone who reads your campus emails concerning our “Principles of Community” and who also takes the time to inform themselves about your actions. You should bear in mind that when you send emails to the UC Davis community, you address a body of faculty and students who are well trained to see through rhetoric that evinces care for students while implicitly threatening them. I see through your rhetoric very clearly. You also write to a campus community that knows how to speak truth to power. That is what I am doing.

I call for your resignation because you are unfit to do your job. You are unfit to ensure the safety of students at UC Davis. In fact: you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis. As such, I call upon you to resign immediately.

Sincerely,

Nathan Brown, Assistant Professor, Department of English

Since last Saturday, a number of people, like me, have called, written letters, and expressed their outrage.  The video and photos have been all over the news and gone viral on facebook and youtube.  So here’s the update:

Most importantly, the President of the University of California system, Mark G. Yudof called the chancellors of all 10 campuses and reminded them of the right to protest peacefully.   (Perhaps he should send them a copy of the Constitution??)  “We cannot let this happen again,” he said, according to a statement from the president’s office.  Yudof said Sunday that he was “appalled” by images of protesters being doused with pepper spray and plans an assessment of law enforcement procedures on all 10 campuses.

Mechanical engineering student David Buscho, 22, of San Rafael, described being paralyzed with fear as he felt the spray sting “like hot glass.”  “I had my arms around my girlfriend. I just kissed her on the forehead and then he sprayed us,” he said. “Immediately we were blinded. … He just sprayed us again and again and we were completely powerless to do anything.” Nine students hit by pepper spray were treated at the scene, two were taken to hospitals and later released, university officials said. Ten people were arrested.  UC Davis police Chief Annette Spicuzza and two officers have been placed on administrative leave.  Before the assembly broke up, the crowd voted to hold a campus-wide strike Nov. 28 to coincide with a meeting of the University of California governing board.

On Sunday, Katehi called on the Yolo County district attorney’s office to investigate the police department’s use of force.  (This was after she basically blamed the students and relied on her “need to remove the tents” as a basis for the harm.  Meanwhile, The UC Davis faculty association has called for Katehi’s resignation, saying there had been a “gross failure of leadership.”  Katehi, speaking Monday morning on KQED Radio, said she had not authorized officers to use pepper spray and called it a “horrific incident.” She said she takes full responsibility but will not step down.  “They were not supposed to use force; it was never called for,” she said.  Chancellor Katehi said, the officers “They were not supposed to limit the students from having the rally, from congregating to express their anger and frustration.”  (Why then, pray tell, did the campus allow 35 police to enter in riot gear to deal with 50 peaceful students??)

Not to be trite, but the long and the short is that taking time to care about the world around me is very good medicine.  To write a letter, make a call, or start a discussion about something wrong in the world.  For me, getting to a place where I do not care is a major symptom of the problem.  So today I give thanks for having enough of a life outside of law to care about injustices.

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One thought on “Indignation

  1. Here is the full test of President Yudof’s Response:

    I am appalled by images of University of California students being doused with pepper spray and jabbed with police batons on our campuses.

    I intend to do everything in my power as president of this university to protect the rights of our students, faculty and staff to engage in non-violent protest.

    Chancellors at the UC Davis and UC Berkeley campuses already have initiated reviews of incidents that occurred on their campuses. I applaud this rapid response and eagerly await the results. (On both campuses, the faculty have supported the students which resulted in the use of force on and injury to a number of widely respected professors, including a former United States poet laureate).

    The University of California, however, is a single university with 10 campuses, and the incidents in recent days cry out for a systemwide response.

    Therefore I will be taking immediate steps to set that response in motion.

    I intend to convene all 10 chancellors, either in person or by telephone, to engage in a full and unfettered discussion about how to ensure proportional law enforcement response to non-violent protest.

    To that end, I will be asking the chancellors to forward to me at once all relevant protocols and policies already in place on their individual campuses, as well as those that apply to the engagement of non-campus police agencies through mutual aid agreements.

    Further, I already have taken steps to assemble experts and stakeholders to conduct a thorough, far-reaching and urgent assessment of campus police procedures involving use of force, including post-incident review processes.

    My intention is not to micromanage our campus police forces. The sworn officers who serve on our campuses are professionals dedicated to the protection of the UC community.

    Nor do I wish to micromanage the chancellors. They are the leaders of our campuses and they have my full trust and confidence.

    Nonetheless, the recent incidents make clear the time has come to take strong action to recommit to the ideal of peaceful protest.

    As I have said before, free speech is part of the DNA of this university, and non-violent protest has long been central to our history. It is a value we must protect with vigilance. I implore students who wish to demonstrate to do so in a peaceful and lawful fashion. I expect campus authorities to honor that right.

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