A tide of protest at UC Davis

November 23, 2011

The shocking image of a campus cop at the University of California (UC) Davis coldly circling in front of a line of seated protesters, taking aim and pepper-spraying them at point-blank range has now been seen around the world. The November 18 assault has become a new symbol of the vicious crackdown on the Occupy movement, from one end of the country to the other.

In the face of widespread and growing outrage, UC officials are scrambling to explain why their police thought it was necessary to assault peaceful demonstrators with chemical weapons. Chancellor Linda Katehi apologized to angry students and faculty members in a speech where she was shouted down. The campus police chief and two officers are on administrative leave. Mark Yudof, the president of the UC system of 10 campuses, was forced to apologize and say he would take steps to curb the cops' brutality.

But activists aren't planning to wait and see. On Monday, November 21, three days after the assault, students, faculty and community members gathered for a massive General Assembly on campus. Afterward, students reestablished their Occupy encampment on campus.

John Green, a California teacher and a recent graduate of UC Davis, attended the GA. In this report, he describes the outpouring of anger and the determination to continue the struggle.

THE GENERAL Assembly at the UC Davis on November 21 was beautiful.

It was by far the largest protest I have ever seen at Davis. I think 8,000 to 10,000 people is a reasonable estimate of the crowd. That's at a school whose total student population for the 2011-12 school year--including undergrads, and graduate and professional students--is currently estimated at 32,385. The San Francisco Chronicle's website reported 5,000, but I teach at a school with 3,000 students, and this was way bigger than our school assemblies.

My wife and I graduated from UC Davis in 2005. We happened to have the day off from teaching, so we drove up for the lunchtime General Assembly and protest against police brutality.

I'm glad we got to see it in person. More political education has happened in the past few days at UC Davis than my entire four years as an undergrad, including all of the teach-ins and protests I was associated with back then.

One of the first speakers I heard was a Muslim American woman who said: "I spent last summer in Palestine, where I was tear-gassed at a protest. I never expected it to happen to me again here."

UC Davis students and faculty held a massive General Assembly in the aftermath of the pepper spraying
UC Davis students and faculty held a massive General Assembly in the aftermath of the pepper spraying (John Green | SW)

One of the students assaulted by the police on November 18 spoke out about how he spent hours in a holding cell without medical attention after being pepper-sprayed and arrested. He told the crowd, "We protest police brutality [that occurred at UC Berkeley the week before], and they get brutal."

Another speaker declared: "This is not a protest. This is an occupation. After this, go home and get your tent." A community member followed up: "Turn Davis into a democracy builder, not an oppression builder."

In the crowd, a handmade sign paraphrased Rosa Luxemburg's words: "Those who do not move do not notice their chains." Another sign, more humorous, read: "Say it, don't spray it!" And, of course, there were several simple signs that just read, "Resign."

An officer from the University Professional and Technical Employees union gave a very militant speech, declaring, "The Regents of the UC are largely drawn from the 1 percent to serve the wealthy. The Regents who vote to raise student fees sit on the boards of banks that profit from the high interest rates on student loans. And then they demand pay cuts from the UC employees who are the 99 percent."

A pair of Latina students got wild applause when they asked the intergenerational and multiracial crowd for more time at the mic so they could deliver a message in Spanish to represent their family members.

At the end of every speaker, chants erupted of "Whose university? Our university!" Meanwhile, at the perimeter of the protest, students climbed high into the trees to get a better vantage point on the demonstration.

Being at Davis today felt like being inside a scene from the film Walkout about the 1968 student walkouts by Chicano high school students in East Los Angeles, or being a part of the footage from the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties.

None of the speakers I heard made the "bad apple" argument about the police--that Lt. John Pike was a brutal exception to the role.

On the contrary, after I got home, I saw a note posted on Facebook directing me to the home page of the English Department at UC Davis. They're calling for the entire campus police department to be dismantled. That's history being made.

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