Around California and all over the country, we have been told that Occupy encampments must come down because of "health and safety concerns." But all around the country, we have seen the police take down these encampments with an overzealous use of pepper spray, tear gas and flash-bang grenades. The real "health threat" we should be concerned about is the threat to the health of our democracy when the government reacts to peaceful political expression with police violence.
UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi cited "health and safety concerns" on Friday when she called for tents at the fledging Occupy UC Davis encampment to "be peacefully removed" by 3 p.m. Later that day, students sat cross-legged and peacefully linked arms. But the UC Davis Police Department, charged with creating a "safe and secure environment" on campus, proceeded to methodically and repeatedly douse peaceful student protesters with pepper spray. What happened was, without question, morally unacceptable and legally unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the UC Davis Police Department is not the only law enforcement agency that fails to appreciate those two self-evident principles. Just a week earlier, the UC Berkeley Police Department responded to the apparently imminent safety risk of tents on campus by beating arm-linked Occupy Cal protesters with batons. Additionally, the Oakland Police Department is responsible for flash-bang grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and other so-called "less lethal" munitions being fired into crowds of peaceful Occupy Oakland supporters. (The ACLU of Northern California and the National Lawyers Guild sued OPD last week in federal court over excessive force on peaceful protesters. A hearing in the matter is scheduled for Nov. 30.)
UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau initially claimed that the Occupy Cal protesters — by merely linking arms — were "not nonviolent," apparently ignoring the venerable history of what has now become an iconic gesture of the civil rights movement.
Birgeneau quickly recanted after actually reviewing videos of the scene, which he subsequently acknowledged were "very disturbing." At UC Davis, Katehi has now agreed to convene a task force. After video of the pepper-spraying incident went viral this weekend, UC President Mark Yudof issued a statement embracing the need "to take strong action to recommit to the ideal of peaceful protest." (The Oakland Police Department, alas, has accepted no responsibility or made similar commitments to date.)
Official responses from the University of California are, at least now, making the appropriate nods to the time-honored tradition of free speech. But this all comes far too late.
Why did UC Davis ever think it was appropriate to deploy police in full riot gear armed with batons, pepper spray and pepperball shotguns to remove symbolic structures and seated students? A fetish for Bull Connor tactics used against Civil Rights era demonstrators?
In dealing with the Occupy movement, cities and universities have lost sight of the big picture. The biggest threat to the health and safety of our communities is not a tent on a lawn or students linking arms. The biggest threat to us all takes the form of a violent police reaction to peaceful political expression. We must do better.