For days now, the story surrounding last Friday’s protest at UC Davis has saturated national media headlines. Video of the pepper spraying of peaceful protestors has left many questioning how campus police could use such force, and has led to UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza and two officers being placed on administrative leave.
Meanwhile, University of California administrators, including UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi and UC President Mark Yudof, have issued statements saying they are “deeply saddened” and “appalled,” respectively. Katehi has called for a task force to review the circumstances around the incident, and Yudof convened the chancellors of all 10 campuses on Monday, asserting that they must do everything possible to protect the rights of students, faculty and staff to peaceful protest.
But the question on everyone’s mind, and one that has gone unanswered by UC administrators, is who is ultimately to blame? While administrators may like blame placed on the now on-leave officers, the truth is evidence shows such use of force on students ‘peacefully’ protesting has been condoned by the University of California in the past.
In November, 2009, the UC Board of Regents held a three day meeting at the UCLA campus. Among the agenda items was an historic 32% hike to student fees, which was approved by the board. In response to the board’s vote, angry protestors swarmed the UCLA campus, as well as the campuses of other UC institutions, including Davis. As word of the vote spread through the crowd outside UCLA’s Covel Commons, the crowd became more active, throwing objects at police and rocking against police barricades. In response, UCLA police, supported by police officers from other UC campuses, deployed battons, pepper spray and tasers, among other methods, to control the crowd and restore order.
In the days after the event, reports surfaced of individuals claiming to have been the victims of excessive force. Among the accusations was that police pepper sprayed seated peaceful protestors, much like the situation at UC Davis. While some of these accusations were fueled by first-hand accounts, evidence surfaced of other incidents, including photos and a video of a student tasered in the chest while lying on the ground in protest, as well as a student being pepper sprayed by police while standing outside a building.
In the aftermath of the 2009 protests, and the complaints that came in, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block launched an independent panel to examine circumstances surrounding clashes between police and students, much like the review Yudof is calling for now in response to the UC Davis incident.
“no persuasive evidence of excessive uses of force or other overreactions by the police.”
Beyond this main point, one very interesting issue was addressed when the report looked at UCLA PD’s use-of-force regulations. This issue was that among the factors to be considered in determining the reasonableness of force is “whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.”
This is the very issue that is at the heart of last Friday’s incident at UC Davis. Were the students sitting linked arm-in-arm peacefully protesting, or actively resisting police? Were campus police within their rights to deploy force to disperse them?
At UCLA at least, here’s what the report finds:
“It appears from interviews and correspondence that many students and faculty members were under the impression that…locking arms with others to block a pathway would be regarded by police as passive and peaceful resistance not justifying the use of force. In fact, demonstrators who stand, sit, or lie down with arms locked to one another are engaged in ‘active resistance’ as UCLA and other police departments understand that phrase…”
Beyond the declaration that protestors sitting arm-in-arm are actively resisting, the report calls for further review of use-of-force tactics across its 60+ pages. With Yudof himself regularly reminding the public that UC is one university with 10 campuses, one has to ask, did President Yudof really never see this report? Or, if he did, did he think use-of-force concerns wouldn’t be an issue on other campuses? Why are are officers and administrators at other UC campuses, especially those like Davis that were sites of similar protests in 2009, still uninformed on their own policies for handling such protestors?
It’s easy to blame the officer involved, but if he was acting within protocol – which it appears he would have been had this incident occurred at UCLA – we have to ask, can UC administrators really plead ignorance?
In the face of media scrutiny this week, President Yudof issued a statement saying “We cannot let this happen again.” To that I say, Mr. Yudof, you already have.