Sunday, November 20, 2011

School Daze

Class is in session.
I work on a university campus as a professor in the English Department and in the American Indian Studies Program.  On our campus, we like to assume that we all serve the same goals: the advancement of knowledge and the education of students.  We like to think you serve those goals whether you are an instructor, an administrator, an accountant, a receptionist, a librarian, a groundskeeper, or a janitor.

Even if you are a campus police officer.

So it was with particular disgust that I saw this image over the weekend, a picture of University of California Davis Police Lt. John Pike calmly dousing UC Davis students with pepper spray at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration on that campus.

I do not expect university police officers to be giving lectures or handing out pop-quizzes, but they play an important role in making a campus a safe place to learn.  And I can see a situation in which a campus police officer would need to use pepper spray against a student -- if that student threatened the safety of other people on campus.

UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza cited safety as a concern in defending the use of pepper spray against students: "There was no way out of that circle.  They were cutting the officers off from their support.  It's a very volatile situation."

But in this picture Lt. Pike looks as threatened as the Orkin man does spraying for ants.

On my campus there has been some OWS activity, all of it peaceful.  And we frequently have a variety of demonstrations and protests by students about various causes, such as never-ending fee hikes.  My university generally works to accommodate these events, and many of them are organized or assisted by professors.  That is, the teachers see these activities as an extension of the classroom.

It seems that Lt. Pike does not see himself as an extension of a classroom.

That is not to say there were not lessons being taught that day at UC Davis.

As its name indicates, civil disobedience needs to break some rules, otherwise it is simply a demonstration.  Students need to understand when and how to disobey the rules, and which rules are worth disobeying.  Students need to learn that disobedience frequently has consequences.  Students need to be prepared for those consequences, such as being handcuffed and arrested.

They need to understand that such consequences frequently are the goal of the disobedience -- the protester challenges the authorities to make arrests.  Their actions state, "I am willing to be arrested for my cause.  Are you willing to be seen publicly arresting me for your cause?"

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi seems to have forgotten her school's educational mission when she authorized the police to use such force (whether she authorized it directly or indirectly, she still bears ultimate responsibility -- and the university's faculty association has called for her resignation).  The school could have taught students about the consequences of their civil disobedience with respect and dignity.

Instead, Katehi and Lt. Pike taught the students about the dynamics of asymmetrical power.

The calm demeanor with which Lt. Pike sprays the students says a great deal about the power he felt.  His body language suggests he feels free of any consequences for his actions, that he fears no retaliation, that those whom he sprays are powerless to resist.

He taught the students about the inhumanity of their confrontation.  He did not respect them, their voices nor their bodies.  He did not teach them that groups of people and institutions can oppose one another but still conduct that conflict with compassion and dignity.

Instead, he taught them about the arrogance of power.

There could have been negotiations -- and simply telling people they must leave is not negotiating.  If that failed, there could have been arrests.  Peaceful arrests.  Perhaps Lt. Pike and others felt spraying down the students would have sped up that process, but if the students had been arrested peacefully, this whole event would be over and not in the news. 

How expedient does the pepper spray feel now, Chancellor Katehi and Lt. Pike?

Would you like some pepper with that payback, Lt. Pike?
But now there is another lesson to be taught, and this time Katehi and Pike will be the students.  The students apparently disobeyed university regulations with their demonstrations, but Katehi and Pike disobeyed the campus community's expectations of mutual respect and common decency.  And now it is time for that community to flex its power.

Lt. Pike works on that campus, among the instructors and staff who are very serious about their roles in the school's educational mission.  He now faces their disapproval.  Until he publicly and sincerely apologizes, he needs to become a campus pariah.

He potentially will see those students he sprayed on campus -- going to class, in the library, at the coffee shop, by the bike racks, etc.  He definitely will see other students.  There should be no place to hide from their public disapproval.

I have friends who think Pike should be arrested for assault.  I don't think that is going to happen.  I am sure there will be lawsuits against him.  But I would like to see the campus community flex its power and force Pike to make amends or resign.

That would be a powerful lesson.


  1. Well said, Scott. Well said.

  2. I reposted this to Facebook. People need to know.