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Let me start this by saying that I’m not an expert. I’m thousands of miles away from UC Davis, and the only thing I’ve seen is the video. Which you should watch, right now. I don’t know exactly what happened, or how. I don’t even know exactly how I feel about the occupy movement. I’m largely in agreement with the broad sentiments behind the occupy movement, and I have a great deal of respect for their methods. I’m not entirely sure how much impact that the movement will have on our political system — especially compared to the Tea Party movement, which has had a clear and direct impact on the Republican Party and, as a result, national politics — but I think that such uncertainty speaks to many of the occupy movement’s complaints. After all, why shouldn’t elected officials be responsive to large, organized groups of people? Isn’t it their job to be responsive to their constituents?

Within the past week or so (depending on whether you count from the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park in New York on Tuesday, or the earlier actions against protesters in Oakland’s Ogawa Plaza), municipal governments seem to be moving toward a more confrontational stance against occupiers. While this cannot be unexpected — occupiers are self-consciously in violation of most cities’ camping/residency ordinances — it’s more than disappointing that a number of these actions have operated almost as military raids. Where protesters resort to violence, police are right to respond with force. Where people are gathered peacefully, even if illegally, assault under cover of darkness, supported by tear gas and pepper spray, is inexcusable. Such an action cannot result in peaceful dispersal. Such an action is designed to engender confusion of response. In the case of a rioting mob, this confusion prevents a focused, violent response. In the case of a nonviolent encampment, it prevents safe withdrawal and engenders confrontation.

One of the clearest examples of the use of disproportionate force is the response of campus police at UC Davis to a number of student and non-student protesters occupying a site on campus. Occupiers set up tents on the university Quad on Thursday, and camped overnight. After requesting on both Thursday and Friday morning that occupiers remove their encampment, campus police (apparently supported by officers from other local units) were sent in riot gear to remove the tents. Occupiers linked arms and sat down to form a human chain between the police and the encampment. Police response was to assault the students with pepper spray.

It’s not my goal to provide an authoritative account of exactly what happened. I wasn’t there. What I want to do is to respond to a pair of extraordinary events captured on the video. The first, as you would imagine, is the spraying itself. I’ve read a great deal of reaction to the nonchalance of the officer who sprays the occupiers, much of it criticizing his apparent indifference to the violence he’s inflicting (or even accusing him of relishing it). At least from my own remove as a viewer, that doesn’t strike me as extraordinary, or as terribly important one way or the other. I’m not really concerned over whether the officer felt bad about what he was doing, or if he just felt that it was part of his job. I’d actually like to focus attention in a slightly different direction — at the beginning of the video, the officer is actually already behind the line of occupiers, and he steps over them — without any interference or resistance — to get back in front of them in order to be able to use the pepper spray.

While the police goal was apparently to remove an encampment — that is to physically remove the tents rather than at that moment to disperse the protesters — it’s not totally clear whether that happens. The video shows a few occupiers being dragged away, but no tents, up or down, are ever visible. The police are focused on the few members of the human chain, but they’re not apparently sure what to do with the surrounding people. There’s a visible shift between about 2:50 and 3:30 in the video from a non-helmeted cop rather agreeably (or at least without an outward show of terrible concern) asking a man with a large video camera to move back, to officers forming a line along the sides of the paved walkway and starting to withdraw.

The second extraordinary moment comes at about 6:00 when the group addresses the now protectively huddled police and offers “a moment of peace” where officers can leave safely and will not be followed. The blog Excremental Virtue wrote powerfully about this moment of grace. I’m not totally in agreement with Excremental Virtue’s assessment of the officer holding two bottles of pepper spray — I agree that he seems to be the same officer who sprayed students at the beginning of the video, but he also seems to me to be telling his colleagues to move back rather than “that he’s immune to the students’ appeal; he’s not even bothering to listen” — but it’s clear that something extraordinary has taken place.

At 4:30, police have pulled themselves into a column and are moving backward. They are surrounded on three sides by a group of people that are moving forward as police move back. I have no doubt that the police feared for their safety, whether or not they initiated the conflict. An aggressive action by either an officer or a member of the group would likely have led to the police adopting anti-riot tactics.

But that’s not what happens. Someone in the group (I have no idea who) calls for a “mic check,” and even more importantly, the group of people knows how to respond. The gestures of the occupy movement become language when they become recognizable. A group chanting “shame on you” suddenly is able to speak, be understood, and responded to. Force is no longer the only option on either side.

In that moment, the human microphone not only allows the group to address the police and announce its nonviolent intentions, it also allows the group to talk to itself. Before the mic check, everything is responsive. The police are attempting to withdraw, but the group is staying close to them. The group doesn’t have any way of knowing whether the police are afraid for their safety or if they simply think that their job is done and want to make a clean getaway. The police don’t have any way of knowing whether the crowd has agressive intentions or whether they’re trying to stay close to make their feelings heard. Given that both the police and the group are several different individuals, a little bit of each is probably true at the same time. The human microphone allows a message to get to everyone. When the microphone announces that the police can leave and not be followed, it’s telling the crowd to allow the police to get some distance. One person says the right thing, to everyone, and it becomes the intention of the group as they speak it.

The moment that the human microphone becomes not just a tool for group communication, but a tool for in-the-moment group action is the moment when it really has to be taken seriously as a tool, as technology. The moment when the gestures adopted by a group of people in New York become organically and immediately meaningful to a group of people under stress in California is the moment when they have to be taken seriously as language. The moment that a group of occupiers collectively decline to respond with violence to an act of disproportionate force is the moment that the movement grows up.

I’m a bit of a pessimist, and largely immune to the rhetoric of victory that follows many occupy actions, but this is a victory. It’s hard to remember that the goal of civil disobedience is to be arrested, in fact, to insist upon it. Even so, police were wrong to resort to force in the face of a line of nonviolent disobedience. It’s a credit to the occupy movement — which must by now be described as a movement, sharing language and engaging participation across broad removes — that it has the tools, the language to not respond in kind.

Header photo by Louise Macabitas

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18 thoughts on “Thoughts on the occupy movement and UC Davis in particular

  1. It seems only a matter of time until an unarmed protester is shot and killed by militarized riot police or private security mercenaries.

  2. I’m not really worried about something like the Kent State deaths happening, but I am worried about “less lethal” crowd control measures. At least the way things are now, it would take a lot for police to open fire with live ammunition — and most of our police want to do the right thing, view occupiers as fellow citizens. Where I worry is that attempts to disperse nonviolent crowds, especially in surprise, nighttime assaults, will lead to crowd and trampling deaths. (And that “less lethal” ammunition — bean bags, rubber bullets — can in fact kill.)

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  4. I’ve been trying to learn as much about this movement as possible and I’ve seen so many terrible things watching the videos. I feel like CNN is trying to hide it from people sometimes… I barely ever see them cover it… The video from Oakland was terrible. I actually recently just wrote about it a little bit in my last blog post…

    I am NOT a big supporter of the movement but I am really disappointed in the way the police have been treating the protesters. I haven’t seen any video of ANY protesters provoking violence, and you’re right… the tactics the police are using is unnecessary. They are attacking these people as if they are insurgents or something.

    Something I have not yet started to understand is why the police aren’t participating in the riots… I’ve seen the government cut their benefits and pay to a startling degree. Is it not yet apparent that we need to do something about the financial injustices that we as a nation are facing? The protesters might be fighting the police today, but soon, we’ll see them fighting the military. It’s just going to get crazier.

    We’re not far from the next Boston Massacre.

  5. What I think might have happened if the protester didn’t calm the situation with the human mic:

    The cops pointing pepper-ball rifles would have fired.

    Then students would have tried to grab the rifles from them.

    Then the cops would have reached for their guns and killed students.

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  7. “Something I have not yet started to understand is why the police aren’t participating in the riots… I’ve seen the government cut their benefits and pay to a startling degree. Is it not yet apparent that we need to do something about the financial injustices that we as a nation are facing?”

    ‘I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.’ ~~ frequently attributed to Jay Gould

    They are oversimplifications, but basically, I believe it’s the “divide and conquer” tactic of “class warfare,” and by and large, police tend to be (literally) “law and order” types: the status quo represents peace and order to many cops (and conservatives in general), whereas young, loud protesters represent inconvenience and chaos.

  8. What a beautiful, intelligent and objective article. Your outside looking in perspective is refreshing. While I do not condone the actions of that officer, I appreciate the fear in the eyes of those who walked away. It must be very difficult to be told to hurt an unarmed civilian or lose your job.

    I too worry about future injuries and deaths, but it is a movement and there are many willing stand in the line of fire for their beliefs. I find respect in them for that as there are many less convicted than that in our midst that would never stand up for themselves let alone the rights of their country.

    Great article.

  9. “I think it’s also the case that police, like a lot of the rest of us, are worried about their jobs.”

    That’s part of the irony in today’s reality of camera-equipped smart phones and instant uploading to an international internet audience: someone will probably be fired due to the events at UC Davis — either the sadist who actually used the pepper spray, or the officer in charge who didn’t keep control of the situation.

    The premature escalation of force on the part of the police/campus security was most likely a bad move strategically, and in the realm of public relations/empathy.

  10. Even the “less lethal” measures are dangerous.

    If one of those kids maced in the face was an asthmatic? That could easily be lethal, especially if the cops really were spraying straight into people’s throats. That’s just plain assault, is what it is. They’re not thinking through the consequences of how they’re using their mace or flash-bangs or whatever.

    I hate to say it, but at some point somebody’s going to die. With crowds this big, and confrontations escalating in frequency, eventually a cop is going to mace an asthmatic kid at point-blank range. Or at some point, they’ll mace a crowd and when an asthmatic kid makes a panicked grab for his emergency inhaler, some cop will end up shooting him because the cop thinks he’s grabbing for a gun. Or a rubber bullet’s going to catch someone just wrong in the eye or the throat. Something’s going to happen.

    I can only hope that this mic-check aspect of the UCDavis incident gets wider play, because you’re right, this kind of collective communication-cum-action tactic needs to be part of the movement’s DNA. Only by staying peaceful, even in the face of the worst oppression, will the broader public begin to see the truth here.

  11. Isn’t it too bad that we have to be so concerned that the police might mis-understand and then, as if ‘naturally’, respond with aggression. They are trained, mature, being paid, etc. Why should we give them credit for being ‘righteously’ frightened? Who is armed, who is not? Who are passively peaceful, who are carrying clubs and guns? It is as if, if any explanation can be given for their violence, they get off free. Why? I was radicalized 1960 in San Francisco, when police at demonstration against HUAC rode through our crowds on horseback…I can hear stamping of horse’s feet on the cement now…and learned then that the police were not there to ‘keep the peace’, but to threaten anyone who defended academic freedom.

    • On some level, I’d agree that there’s no such thing as being righteously frightened. At the same time, however, even with riot shields and pepper guns, it’s possible for a police officer to be hurt by an unarmed crowd. Mob mentality is mob mentality, be the mob police officers or civilians.

      That, again, is what makes the human microphone so extraordinary — it gave a group of people a tool to operate on some basis other than mob mentality.

      But to respond more directly, I never make any argument that the police should get off free for their actions. There seems to be some indication that officers may face civil liability for their actions. As they should.

      Additionally, there’s some excellent discussion including Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com and James Fallows at theAtlantic.com about how tactics used at UC Davis are reflective of a national shift toward more agressive police tactics. Which means that individual civil liability is only the first step in holding institutions and governments accountable for how they respond to organized dissent.

      • Someone tonight [Sunday] at OccupyPhilly mentioned Greenwald at Salon, so I’ll plan to look him up. Thanks.
        I didn’t mean, although its not hard to have read it that way, to have criticized your position, particularly…what I meant to say was that, for many people, if you can find some one person, or a small part of the group, who has done something that they can consider ‘wrong’, then that oks those with the force [police, army, etc.] to bring that force down hard on the larger population [as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan now]. If the children should not be punished for the father’s sins, then certainly the brothers and sisters should not, certainly their neighbors should not, certainly those who have never met them should not.
        Yes, mic check, listening for the best of those with us, and then allowing ourselves to be moved by them, is a great way to be. The General Assembly at OccupyPhilly seemed to me to be doing that tonight.
        What I do mean to say, however, is that if we would never ok one group beating up another group because one of their number, [or two, or three…] did something untoward, nor would we ok a group physically attacking a group of the police because one of the police hurt someone…we should also not allow the police that ok.

  12. Gavin:
    Very thoughtful analysis. I am not only an outsider like you, but I’m also overseas. So I’m far less connected to events than I wish I were. But seeing this video struck a chord, and I couldn’t let it go unanswered. My letter to the UC-Davis Chancellor follows.

    Chancellor Katehi:

    I have no connection to UC-Davis, either direct or indirect. I cannot, therefore, couch the following comments in any light other than that of concerned observer. That said, I feel compelled to share my thoughts.

    Above all else: the disproportionately aggressive posture of law enforcement toward peaceful student protesters and subsequent use of unnecessary force on your campus were far more than “chilling”. They were disgraceful, demeaning, provocative, and even perhaps brutal. The actions taken by YOUR police force would be understandable if the officers were intervening in a situation like the Penn State riot, but these people were doing nothing more than *sitting peacefully*.

    The task force you have created may be an effective way of changing things in the future, but doesn’t mitigate the need for some sort of accountability for what has already happened. I won’t accuse you of being disingenuous like some will. But as THE senior administrator of the campus, the actions taken by your police force in enforcing your directives are clearly your responsibility. While quickly appointing a task force is a commendable step forward, as an outside observer I respectfully suggest that the members of your community deserve a direct, unequivocal apology as well.

    As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, which had its own regrettable experiences during the Vietnam War protests, I offer two additional suggestions.

    First, those in positions of authority on your campus would do well to heed the words found on a plaque at the main entrance to our University’s flagship academic building, Bascom Hall: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” (http://www.secfac.wisc.edu/SiftAndWinnow.htm) To that end, I hope that the task force you are appointing will consider the freedom to peaceably assemble in addition to the freedoms of speech and expression.

    Second, since your law enforcement personnel apparently lack the skills or temperament to deal effectively with the type of situation that occurred, consult those who have successfully managed similar events. In particular, Police Chief Noble Wray of the Madison, WI Police Department and his leadership responded admirably to the protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol earlier this year, and the University of Wisconsin police department also has dealt positively with sit-ins and other protests on campus without resorting to confrontational tactics.

    If in fact you read this personally, thank you for your time and consideration.

    • Well said, Don! Thank you for sharing. I hope that UC Davis takes advantage of the resources that you offer. Although all indications are that if they actually listen to their faculty and students, they’ll be far better off than they are now. :-)

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