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Pepper Spray on Campus: A Tale of Two Videos | The Nation

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Pepper Spray on Campus: A Tale of Two Videos

Two unforgettable videos flew around the World Wide Web on Saturday, one horrifying, the other inspiring. Everybody knows the first: black-clad cops at UC Davis shooting pepper-spray into the faces of Occupy Wall Street student demonstrators who are sitting passively on the ground with linked arms. More than 2 million people have watched that video on YouTube—you might title it “The Whole World Is Watching.”

But there’s a second video, shot the next night, that is amazing in a different way: it shows the chancellor of UC Davis, Linda P.B. Katehi, walking to her car after a press conference, with hundreds of students lining her path on one side, sitting on the ground with linked arms—like the students in the first, famous video—but now in a silent protest against the violence she presided over. This video is titled “walk of shame.”

The Davis students’ message is clear: we are not the violent ones. We’re not like you. We stand for a different kind of world. And: your violence is not working. We are not afraid. It’s the message of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s, of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke of “meeting physical force with soul force.” (On Common Dreams, Rebecca Solnit explains more.)

The hypocrisy of the Davis chancellor has been hard to miss. She said in her first official statement that the cops pepper-sprayed students because the university was “driven by our concern for the safety and health of the students involved in the protest.” It doesn’t take a genius to expose the flaws in logic here, and students and others did—by the thousands. One was Nathan Brown, an assistant professor of English, whose open letter to the chancellor has been quoted widely: “you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis.”

The hypocrisy of the cops has also been pretty obvious. The official position of the UC Davis police is that they had to use pepper spray to “get out of the protest area,” because the students had “encircled the officers,” who “were looking to leave but were unable to get out." That’s what UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza told reporters on Saturday. Of course the 2 million people who watched the video saw something different: the cops are not trying to leave, and nobody is preventing them from doing so. When the cops finally do leave, hundreds of kids are chanting at them, “Shame on you! Shame on you!”

The story behind the Davis Chancellor’s “walk of shame” is even more amazing. After the press conference, with hundreds of students outside, Chancellor Linda Katehi refused to leave the building. According to Lee Fang, an investigative reporter who has written forThe Nation, she was “attempting to give the media the impression that the students were somehow holding her hostage.”

Then “a group of highly organized students formed a large gap for the chancellor to leave,” chanting, “We are peaceful” and “Just walk home.” After several hours. student representatives convinced the chancellor to leave. As she was videotaped walking past the silent students, Lee Fang asks her “Chancellor, do you still feel threatened by the students?” She replies “No. No.” (More here.)

The chancellor is now under intense pressure to resign, and has made various concessions to students and faculty: expressing belated regrets, putting the two pepper-spraying cops on leave, promising some kind of investigation. Many activists at Davis say they’d like to see a lot more than a resignation—Jesse Drew, for example, an associate professor who teaches in the film studies program, said it was more important to build a sustained student movement, to mobilize the faculty and to keep attention focused on the Occupy Wall Street issues of economic injustice.

One of the really good things about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is not a campus-based, student movement—it is a movement of “the 99 percent.” But campuses provide a special setting where tactics are tested and strategies are developed, and the students at UC Davis have set an amazing example—when the whole world is watching.

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