Depressingly, few of us working at the University of California were surprised by the fact that demonstrating students would be treated with violence. As Officer Pike calmly went about his task, a squad of his colleagues stood passive, affirming that it was business as usual. UC Davis's Chancellor and its Police Chief both reacted as if this were an unpleasant routine, until it became a news item.
The University of California's leaders have been a waging war on students for years. This scene is repeated with increasing force directed at protesters who have sought ever more dramatic ways of demonstrating that they are angry - but not violent. Shouting? Too violent. Standing? Violent. Sitting down and chanting? Still violent. Finally, our students are on the floor with their mouths shut.
We have also witnessed Orwellian twists in the system's efforts to quash dissent. When demonstrating students aren't bludgeoned and sprayed, they are marked with antiquated labels like "disrespectful," "intolerant" and "uncivil" in a prelude to "discipline" and disenfranchisement. In a February 2010 memo ominously titled "Intolerance on Campus," UC President Mark G. Yudof lumped organized student activists together with racists when he compared the Irvine 11 (and UCR 3) to the student who thought that hanging a noose in the UC San Diego library was funny. Both actions, he wrote, showed a lack of "tolerance."
The comparison (which Yudof has made more than once) is chilling. It draws a line of equivalence between a loud but non-violent protest against violence, and an action that is itself shorthand for a quite specific history of harrowing and racially-based violence. Students protesting systemic, state-sanctioned violence were equated with students casually citing lynching. Meanwhile, those protesting tuition hikes are greeted with truncheons.
For crying out during a presentation by Israel's ambassador to the United States, the Irvine 11 wound up in the middle of a criminal prosecution. The Muslim Student Union was banned from Irvine's campus for six months - an extraordinary disciplinary measure I haven't seen duplicated except in cases of violence at frat parties. In fact, I've seen the latter treated more generously.
One administrative response to "the Irvine 11" has gone completely unnoticed in commentary about the case, perhaps because it is so utterly banal. The Office of Student Conduct forced the three UC Riverside students who participated in that protest to write essays about the First Amendment.
Let me repeat that: UC Riverside's Office of Student Conduct forced three students to write about their right to freedom of expression, as a form of punishment. (In his memo on "campus intolerance" Mark Yudof identifies himself as "a scholar of the First Amendment.")
No UCR faculty member was involved in creating, reading or evaluating that assignment. What self-respecting scholar could bear such a thing? I can think of no surer way of alienating a student from his or her authorial voice that to tell them what to say, and then force them to say it. (Incredibly, these punitive essays are routinely assigned across the UC system.)
There is a violence embedded in that kind of "discipline." It is not the kind that goes viral. It is the kind of thing that feeds on a system like a slow-growing cancer - empowering police officers to wield their weapons as educational tools.
In setting up camps, by so visibly occupying their schools, students acknowledge that they are at risk of being dispossessed of their education if they don't insist on the campus's responsibility to their presence. That University of California leadership has produced a situation in which the most effective protest has been silence should give us all pause. Students should not have to sit down and shut up in order to avoid being labeled as a threat.
That is one reason why the UC Davis action was so shaming - such a demand is grotesquely at odds with our mission, but it is exactly what the system has been asking students to do. In literalizing that demand, however, UC Davis's students also powerfully asserted their connection with and allegiance to the ever-increasing numbers of people whose mere existence poses a problem to those who have taken so much from them.