I write this, here at UC Davis, one week after a general assembly was attended by about 5,000 people. One week after a press conference by Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi was protested by 1,000.
I write this on the day that the UC Regents will meet via teleconference to decide whether to raise UC tuition by 81 percent. They originally planned to hold the meeting last week in San Francisco but rescheduled due to fears of too many protestors. Their fears were well justified. The general assembly at Davis called for a strike on the UC campuses today. Other campuses have taken up the challenge and are organizing for the strike, particularly Santa Cruz and Berkeley.
But none of this is why UC Davis is in the local, national, and international news. Stories about Davis are everywhere because on Friday, November 18, Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed seated, nonviolent student protestors (myself included) with the nonchalance one typically associates with a stroll in the park. Lt. Pike that Friday put the banality of police violence on display.
About ten of us were pepper-sprayed and the same number were arrested; several were taken to the emergency room and two were hospitalized—all to remove a few tents from the quad outside the student union. What could have been so threatening about a few tents?
I first saw the thirty-five riot police as I was leaving seminar with a friend, Kevin Smith, to grab a coffee with our professor. It was around 3:15, and, turning to the professor, Kevin and I pointed to the cops and said we had to deal with more pressing issues than Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick. All three of us walked toward the tents, and our professor joined approximately 200 onlookers as Kevin and I linked arms with the seventy or so protestors encircling the tents. We began chanting as the cops marched towards us in formation, and we continued as they gave us the order to disperse.
A prominent poet who teaches on campus approached me and another friend, Sophia Kamran, betting us a dollar we couldn’t get the crowd to chant, “Cops off campus!” We did, and he still owes us that dollar.
The cops lined up to march against us, then ran into us to start making arrests. They were able to arrest several, starting with our longtime comrade and unofficial “know your rights” trainer, and we unarrested a couple.
They threw a number to the ground, including Kevin, who had a cast on his arm after a recent surgery. Incensed by this show of violence, about half the onlookers flooded our circle; some took tents away for safekeeping while others stood among us and joined our chant: “Cops off campus!” Those of us linking arms, seeing the police gather the arrested in the middle of our circle, stood up and reformed a large circle around the police and their prisoners. We yelled that we’d disperse when they let our friends go (an entirely reasonable demand, considering that the police can simply cite and release for a misdemeanor).
Pike walked up to those seated on the walkway and threatened that he and the others would shoot us with their pepper-spray paintball guns. At least that’s what we assumed he meant—all he said was, “Move or we’ll shoot.” We sat tight. I lifted up my coat collar and pulled my scarf around my mouth in preparation. Instead of shooting, however, he stepped over us, out of the circle, and pepper-sprayed us.
Pepper spray hurts a lot. Apparently it was “military grade” pepper spray, which causes a fatality in one out of every six hundred uses. One young woman was hospitalized for chemical burns. An asthmatic went into shock. One of us, sprayed in the mouth, vomited blood for forty-five minutes, and two more also went to the hospital where each needed an entire IV bag of saline solution per eye to stop the burning. Many of our hands burned for hours afterwards. For two days, my eyes burned when I took a shower (hot water activates pepper spray, so, if you do get sprayed, take a very cold shower afterward and don’t iron your clothes).
No one expected UC Davis to become world famous for police brutality. It’s a nice, land-grant university in a small town, a school more famous for its cows than its cops. And so, when a cop here acted with the same brazen disregard for decency that police display elsewhere—in poorer communities, against people of color—it made the news.
But how Lt. Pike behaved on Friday, with the authorization of Police Chief Annette Spicuzza (now on administrative leave) and Chancellor Katehi, is not exceptional. We know this in Davis, a mere hour drive from Oakland—the memory of Oscar Grant is with us constantly.
The violence of the police on my campus has unified the community in a way I have never before seen. Hundreds of alumni drove in to attend a rally. Children from a local school baked cookies for those pepper-sprayed. Thousands of students who had never been to a protest before attended a general assembly.
The community has unified around one serious demand: Chancellor Katehi must resign. She must resign not only because of what happened last Friday. That would presume that her actions last week were not part of a larger pattern. Rather, she must resign because she has followed the path of privatization set by University of California President Mark Yudof. This privatization plan—let’s call it austerity—has been enforced by cops. The police have enforced austerity in California as they have in Egypt, London, and Greece.
While November 18 highlighted the issue of police brutality at Davis (as earlier protests did at Berkeley), this brutality is inseparable from the austerity and financialization against which the global occupation movement is struggling. Last Sunday, during an attempt to retake Tahrir Square from the violent military dictatorship that has lost its presidential figurehead, thirty-three people were murdered. The struggle there continues. The struggle against austerity continues in Athens. The fight against oppressive governments, against austerity, against police violence and racism and homophobia—against capitalism—continues.
On the UC campuses, we do not always experience our struggle as being against a big concept like capitalism. Right now at Davis, we see a few things that really make us mad: the actions of Lt. Pike and Chancellor Katehi, and the noose-referencing graffiti that appeared during the students of color conference. Some of us see these as the problems we have to fix. We can demand that Katehi resign, that Pike be put on trial, and that the Cross Cultural Center on campus get more funding.
But of whom can we demand changes that go beyond quick fixes? The phrase most associated with the UC struggles (and my second favorite) is “Occupy everything, demand nothing!” We do not demand “nothing” because there is nothing that we want. To the contrary, we make no demands because there is no existing authority that could give us what we want. But when we come together, we create the power to realize our demands. Insofar as these are “our universities,” “our streets,” “our public spaces,” and “our buildings,” it is our task to radically transform them―to transform the social relations for which they exist.
This brings me to my favorite phrase associated with the UC struggle: “You will never be lonely again.”
We do make demands―we make demands of ourselves, as we realize new social relations, new types of friendship, even new types of love. We occupy space not only to proclaim our existence. We occupy space to communize it. We occupy space to decolonize it.
We occupy so that we can change human nature.
Last Friday, I was very mad at the cops. What they did was unforgivable. But by the end of the day, anger was no longer my primary feeling. Instead I felt joy and love toward all the people I’d been talking to and trying to organize for years who that day went from looking at us to standing with us.
I was happy because, after being pepper-sprayed, in terrible pain, we stood together and marched the cops off the quad, chanting, “You can go.”
I was happy because I felt proud. I felt proud to be a UC Davis student and a member of a community that was suddenly so unified.