UC Davis pepper spray incident boosts Occupy, restores faith in student protests


It was the spritz heard round the world. Or rather, make that spritzes, unfortunately. There were way too many of them.

But I think it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I had just been yearning for the halcyon days of campus protest in the ’60s after seeing that pathetic display recently at Penn State.

That’s where some 2,000 students rioted after the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno for his handling of the alleged child molestation accusations involving his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

The protesting students were so focused on football and Joe Pa, they couldn’t be bothered to think about the actual charges of child sexual abuse at hand. If they did, perhaps then they could have mustered the decency, and/or the ire, to call for a cancellation of the last home game. Or maybe if one were so bold, they could have demanded an end to the rest of the season. Moratorium anyone?  

Considering the $53.2 million the school reportedly profits from football, that would have been one hell of a student protest.

Instead, the students gave us a scene resembling a frenzied pep rally. They overturned a media truck. Then it was everyone home to gear up for the next day’s kick-off.


That’s why I am so grateful to the handful of protestors at UC Davis, call them the Pepper Spray 11.

Watching them on any of the viral videos being spread throughout the world is enough to restore your faith in student protest.

The video shows students who’ve been forced from their encampment and placed seated in a line. They are peaceful and non-resisting. That’s the important part. There was no provocation.

But there’s one police officer in particular who insists on applying the pepper spray like room deodorizer. Or roach spray.

The way the students are seated, it’s really more like a summary execution, gangland style.  Except there’s no real urgency. The officers seem so casual about it all. Is it really just another day at the office?

It’s even more grotesque as the students remain seated in place, lock-armed, but wailing from the obvious effects of the pepper spray on their noses, skin and eyes.

Want a simulation? Rub your eyes after cutting up some demon hot jalapenos, and you get the picture.

It’s cruel. It’s outrageous. It’s not a scene you expect to see in America. The First Amendment does not come with pepper spray.

The campus police involved have been placed on leave. The school administrators, who had taken a hard line about removing the protestors, have now changed their tune and publicly apologized.

But the students aren’t accepting, nor should they. The calls are getting louder for Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi to step down. She’s not budging. Maybe she should look at the video again.

Filmmaker Michael Moore says the Pepper Spray 11 will be recalled in the future like the lone protestor standing up to the big tanks at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It will be a pivotal moment. But I think it’s really more like Kent State, May 4, 1970. That’s when the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Vietnam War protestors and killed four and wounded nine students.

Bullets aren’t pepper spray and no one died at Davis. We’re supposed to know better now. But the force was still way too excessive last weekend. The overreaction at Kent State helped it become a symbol of the divisions that existed in society in the ’70s. It was an emotional driver of the national politics that brought down Richard Nixon. More than forty years later, the student protestors at UC Davis embody the 99 percent so well, to see them sprayed point blank is like witnessing a call to action.

Indeed, the encampment is back on the quad and has grown. Fifty tents were there as of Tuesday morning. There is a pepper spray-fueled surge emanating from the sleepy ag campus of Davis.

Occupy Wall Street still may not have a formal leader, nor does it want one. But it now has a viral video capable of moving and galvanizing a heretofore ambivalent public to occupy something, anything, in the name of the 11, the embodiment of the 99 percent.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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