By now you’ve seen the video and heard the outrage: A group of student demonstrators at the University of California Davis supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement and protesting violent police action against University of Berkeley protesters two weeks earlier were pepper-sprayed by UC Davis police. If the incident doesn’t become an iconic, defining moment of the Occupy movement a la images of black Americans being hosed down by police during the civil rights movement, it has at least galvanized the cause and ignited a long-overdue debate about police aggression circa 2011.
While the UC Davis police were acting on orders by the university’s chancellor, Linda Katehi, it’s unlikely she instructed Lt. John Pike to nonchalantly stroll up and down and shower the students with military-grade pepper spray at point-blank range like he was killing cockroaches in his kitchen. No reasonable civilian would begrudge police officers their right to protect themselves while in the line of duty, but despite UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza’s statement that the pepper spray was used because students were preventing the officers from leaving, video and photographs of the incident contradict her account. Even Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly—who likened pepper spray to a nice, peppery vinaigrette on The O’Reilly Factor last night—thinks Spicuzza’s claim is bogus.
The disparity of the police presence at Occupy protests vs. similar Tea Party events, where demonstrators routinely wield weapons, and the clearly organized response (from as high up as the Department of Justice) to the Occupy movements in various cities across the country has been covered reasonably well in the media. The incident is also beginning to shine a light on the gratuitous use of new forms of non-lethal force (like pepper spray, tear gas, and Tasers—what a former police lieutenant calls “standard police procedure”) in instances where, previously, weapons may not have been used at all.
But what no one seems to be talking about is the second half of the eight-and-a-half-minute video, during which the students corral the police and seemingly guide them out of the university quad. Chants of “Shame on you!” and “Our university!” built steadily as the number of students gathering around increased. As the officers back away with their riot guns drawn, Lt. Pike can be seen shaking two pepper-spray canisters, preparing to open fire on the students again. Then one protester can be heard leading a new chant: “We are willing to give you a brief moment of peace, and you may take your weapons and our friends and go. Please do not return. You can go. We will not follow you.” Repeated chants of “You can go!” are then followed by cheering as the police officers exit the university grounds and the students reclaim their quad.
Most, if not all, of the media coverage of the incident at UC Davis has focused on the police action, not the students’ reaction. But what these few minutes of video display is the power of nonviolent resistance and direct action in the face of police force. Just as the overnight occupation of Liberty Square in downtown Manhattan was technically illegal, the demonstrations at UC Davis may have been against the university’s rules, or even against the law. But as a famous civil rights leader once said, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” Its economy of language and lack of obvious poetry makes it one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s less quotable quotes, but it’s the foundational principle of civil disobedience, and one that these idealistic college students clearly understand.
Watch the incident from four perspectives: