In her hit piece, “Mind-numbing protests meet pepper spray,” (San Francisco Chronicle, 4/14/12), Debra Saunders makes the University of California, Davis police out to be innocent victims of abuse by spoiled brat students, implying that their pepper spraying of students at point blank range was somehow justified. However, worse than the finger wagging, which activists have come to expect from the corporate media, are the numerous inaccuracies, exaggerations and omissions in her piece, including the reason why students were protesting: the 18% tuition hike for the 2011-2012 school year.
Let’s start with the most serious omission: students were seated and protesting nonviolently. They were doing nothing that was physically threatening to anyone, including the police. The legality, rationality and civility of their tactics are irrelevant. There was simply no justification for pepper spray or any other form of police violence. Furthermore, the pepper spray was sprayed directly into students’ faces, though it is not supposed to be used any closer than six feet, and it was a high potency variety that had not been approved for use on nonviolent protesters.
Saunders devotes much of her piece to the irrational argument that tactics like linking arms, setting up tents and chanting provoked police into pepper spraying them. This is absurd, tantamount to the argument that name-calling justifies a beating. Police could have ignored the students (they weren’t harming anyone). They could have issued citations on the spot or even arrested them without using pepper spray. She argues that students were warned they would be pepper sprayed and the “smart thing” to do was to leave, which is like saying that an abuse victim is to blame for not leaving her abuser or that a child is to blame if his father warns him first that he will be beaten with a coat hanger.
There are many rational reasons for the students to have remained, such as the common (if naïve) belief that the police will not use chemical weapons against nonviolent demonstrators. Indeed, Saunders accuses one protester of “taunting” police by saying, "You are going to shoot me for sitting here? Is that what you said, officer?" Yet this statement could just as easily be interpreted as a statement of disbelief.
Saunders lambasts the Reynoso report (which correctly placed blame for the incident entirely on the campus police and administration) of failing to address the “need to educate students about the difference between free speech and civil disobedience.” However, the commission’s purpose was to determine the causes and legitimacy of the pepper spraying incident, not to critique pedagogy or curricula. Even so, her point is just plain silly. Is free speech necessarily more noble or legitimate than civil disobedience? One should not forget that free speech is often legally used by hate groups to promote violence against people of color, GLBT’s and women and that civil disobedience has repeatedly been utilized in many well respected and legitimate struggles (e.g., underground railroad, civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, poll taxes).
She even criticizes the university administration for occasionally discouraging prosecution of student activists, as if this confused students into believing they were immune from punishment. This is ridiculous. People who engage in civil disobedience expect consequences. Their goals are to overwhelm the system with arrests and encourage media coverage of their cause. The students knew they were taking a risk. Furthermore, while administrators have discouraged prosecution from time to time, many more students have been prosecuted without intervention by the university. And in the few cases where prosecution was discouraged, taxpayers ought to be thankful, as it saved them thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal expenses.