Police Action Sparks Outcry
In a move that shocked students, faculty and staff throughout the UC system, two UC Davis police officers unleashed pepper spray on non-violent student protesters demonstrating in the UC Davis Quad on Friday, Nov. 18.
According to university officials, the implicated campus police officers have been placed on administrative leave.
At the request of UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, campus police confronted student demonstrators who had erected encampments on the Quad the previous day. When the students refused to disband, police officers arrested 10 protestors on charges of unlawful assembly and failure to disperse.
Walking up and down a row of protestors linking arms and sitting across the Quad, Lieutenant John Pike pepper-sprayed students in the face. Appalled, the crowd erupted with chants of “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” and “Shame on you!”
According to Kase Wheatley, one of the students pepper-sprayed on Friday, the demonstration addressed mounting fee hikes and, ironically, recent police brutality at UC Berkeley.
Wheatley then explained how he and other protesters were simply sitting, when they suddenly felt the spray without any warning.
“We weren’t aware they were going to spray us,” he said.
Thomas Matzat, another arrested student, was handcuffed too tightly according to Wheatley. Doctors later diagnosed Matzat, a left-handed student, with radial nerve palsy in his left arm. The injury will leave his hand partially disabled for approximately the next two weeks.
Community members rushed to care for the afflicted students. The UC Davis Fire Department arrived on the scene to treat affected students and the ASUCD Coffee House provided water and baking soda to counteract the effects of the pepper spray.
Bystanders were quick to film the event, launching videos of the law enforcement display online. Within hours, the videos went viral.
“I was absolutely dumbfounded by the UC Davis police department’s actions against the students,” said UC Davis third-year history major Lindsey Nelson. “Although I haven’t been as active in the protests as others have and as I have been in the past, the students that have been arrested and/or subject to this gross police brutality are my peers, my classmates and my friends. To see them running such an effective, non-violent and peaceful protest only to be met, absolutely unprovoked, with batons and pepper spray … it makes me sick to my stomach.”
Subsequently, Chancellor Katehi is launching a task force, comprised of students, staff and faculty, to research the incident and present a report within 90 days.
Addressing the campus community in a letter, she expressed her regret at Friday’s turn of events and reiterated that students were asked to remove their encampments several times.
“The group was reminded that while the university provides an environment for students to participate in rallies and express their concerns and frustrations through different forums, university policy does not allow such encampments on university grounds,” Chancellor Katehi said. During the early afternoon hours and because of the request to take down the tents, many students decided to dismantle their tents, a decision for which we are very thankful. However, a group of students and non-campus affiliates decided to stay. The university police then came to dismantle the encampment. The events of this intervention have been videotaped and widely distributed. As indicated in various videos, the police used pepper spray against the students who were blocking the way. 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.”
In an open letter to Chancellor Katehi, UC Davis Assistant Professor of English Nathan Brown condemned her decision to send in riot police and called for her resignation.
“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.”
“[After being pepper-sprayed] 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, 45 minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood.”
The incidences of police brutality at UC Berkeley demonstrations only a week before, Davis reasoned, only make Chancellor Katehi’s actions all the more careless.
“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,” Davis said. “Many people know this. Many more people are learning it very quickly. You [Chancellor Katehi] are responsible for the police violence directed against students on the UC Davis quad on Nov. 18, 2011. As I said, I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation on these grounds.”
The letter paints a disturbing image of administrative response to student activism, powerful enough to prompt UC President Mark Yudof to organize an emergency meeting with all 10 Chancellors of the University of California.
“I am appalled by images of University of California students being doused with pepper spray and jabbed with police batons on our campuses,” said President Yudof in a public statement.
“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.”
“I can only speak for myself, but I have participated in the occupation of Mrak Hall on Tuesday, the busing to Occupy SF on Wednesday and the occupation of the Quad on Thursday in solidarity with fellow students at other public universities against the 81 percent fee hike,” said Suzanna Rush, a third-year Community Regional Development major and a student protester at UC Davis. “I think that by doing nothing, we are allowing our education to become privatized and exclusive, and it’s disgusting.”
Both the UC Irvine and the UC Davis police departments were unavailable for comment.