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College campuses should be havens for civil disobedience

The Occupy Everything movement is spreading, and university administrations are getting desperate.

A video shot this weekend went viral after University of California, Davis campus police arrested and pepper-sprayed student protesters. The protesters were sitting on the ground, arms linked and non violent. The officer, Lt. John Pike, reportedly warned students he would use pepper spray on them if they did not move.

The YouTube video is unsettling — literally stomach-churning — as Pike then moves along the line of students sitting in front of him, walking back and forth while spraying indiscriminately.

The demonstrators at UC Davis had set up an encampment earlier this month as part of the nationwide Occupy movements. They were protesting tuition hikes and police brutality on other University of California campuses, and had set up tents on a quad area before being told they could not stay overnight or during the weekend because of a lack of resources, according to UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi.

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The pepper spray incident followed on the heels of other recorded incidents of police brutality, including a video of a University of California, Berkeley professor who offered her wrists to officials and agreed to to be arrested. Police officers responded by grabbing her and two students by the hair and forced them to the ground. In the same video of that incident, another protester is pinned to a bush and police won’t allow her to free herself. A man who tries to help her is attacked by police.

Following the incidents at UC Davis and UC Berkeley, and similar action at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Council of UC Faculty Associations released a statement condemning the use of force by police against non-violent demonstrators.

“Student, faculty and staff protesters have been pepper-sprayed directly in the eyes and mouth, beaten and shoved by batons, dragged by the arms while handcuffed, and submitted to other forms of excessive force. Protesters have been hospitalized because of injuries during these incidents. The violence was unprovoked, disproportional and excessive.”

On Saturday, Katehi released a public statement. “The use of pepper spray as shown on the video is chilling to us all and raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this,” she wrote.

There aren’t that many questions about how “best to handle” student protesters. In fact, the principal question is, “Do I use pepper spray on this group of students who are sitting on the ground, posing absolutely no threat to me or anyone else?” And the answer is a resounding no.

Instead, UC campus police officers seem to be wondering which weapon would be the most unnecessary, and therefore better to use: baton or pepper spray?

UC Davis Professor Nathan Brown published an open letter to Katehi calling for her resignation, writing that, “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.”

According to Brown, Katehi ordered police onto campus to clear the protest from the quad. Police were outfitted in riot gear, with teargas guns and batons used to push students apart. When students were not separated from each other, police pepper-sprayed them directly in the face. Students who tried to shield their eyes with clothing had their mouths forced open by police officers and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several students were seriously injured — 45 minutes later, a student was still coughing up blood.

Regardless of how you feel about the Occupy movement, there has to be a safe space for civil disobedience. The point of higher education is to challenge students to think more critically and independently. There is no worse place to crush free speech and political dissent than college campuses, and there is no worse way to do so than abusing authority as a police officer or a chancellor at a university.

— Kristina Bui is the copy chief. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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UA COVID-19 Test Tracker

Daily (4/9)
1,308 6 0.5%
Total (8/4)
246,487 4,258 1.7%
Includes tests since August 4, 2020
Data from https://covid19.arizona.edu/updates
Updated April 10, 2021