Students Who Were Pepper Sprayed Tell Their Stories
UC officials, who hoped the matter of pepper spraying students on the Quad of the MU last Friday would simply go away, were treated to a rude awakening as more than 5,000 people – students, staff, faculty and members of the community alike – jammed into the UCD Quad Monday afternoon.
The highlight of the event was hearing those pepper sprayed recall the events of less than 72 hours earlier. It was a show of raw emotions, hope and disgust.
“I’m here to apologize,” Chancellor Linda Katehi said, to a mostly polite response with a smattering of catcalls and resignation calls. “I feel horrible for what happened on Friday. “
“When you tell me you don’t want to be students at a university like we had on Friday,” she said, “I’m just telling you, I don’t want to be the chancellor of the university we had on Friday.”
“Our university needs to be better than it is and it needs all of the community to come together to do that,” she added.
“I know you don’t believe everything that I say here today, and you don’t have to. It is my responsibility to earn your trust,” the Chancellor said.
As soon as she was done speaking, she quickly left the scene without offering any specifics about what went wrong, what they will change, or how to go forward from here.
It was the students, their emotion raw with a sense of anger and betrayal, that captured the day.
One of the female students said that she was not sure what she was going to talk to talk about and mentioned the feelings that she had watching other students, her friends thrown to the ground, or the horror that she felt as she was about to be sprayed in the face.
“What I decided to speak about was not the horrible violence that I experienced but the community that I felt when I stood in solidarity with my fellow students supporting our university,” she said. “The thing that really stuck out to me when I read Katehi’s letter later that day talking about events, is that she talked about the safety of the community as she talked about events, and I ask you, what community does Katehi provide, what support does she give us that we can’t give each other?”
David Buchelle said that he attended his first protest in Mrak Hall last week. He explained the formation of their camp, describing it as one of the safest and cleanest camps he has ever seen, and Katehi’s letter that they had to disband by 3 pm due to safety concerns. He noted that it did not list those concerns.
“Someone ran up yelling riot police, and we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “We threw all our stuff into the middle of the circle, we held hands and we started chanting. We didn’t know what to do.”
The police, he said, started yelling something they couldn’t understand, and he assumed it was an order to disperse. The tents were down at this point.
“They started pulling my friends, my friends from that circle and throwing them on the ground, putting them in handcuffs and dragging them away,” he continued. “At that point there was no encampment, there was no camp, there was just stuff there, we were just kids sitting on the ground in a circle, singing.”
“But the cops didn’t leave,” he said. “There were about 150 people standing around watching us and we yelled join us, join us, and in the proudest moment of my life, those kids came to us and they sat down with us – they joined us.”
“But it wasn’t over, because the cops kept picking kids up, throwing them on the ground and arresting us.”
Mr. Buchelle told the crowd that the police threatened that if they moved, they would be shot. They were behind them with “paintball guns” but the police realized that shooting them from behind was not the best approach, so they shook up the can of pepper spray, and held it up for the crowd to see.
Someone yelled, he said, “Oh my God, pepper spray!”
He closed his eyes, held his girlfriend and he “entered a world of pain.”
“It felt like hot glass was entering my eyes, I couldn’t see anything, but every time I opened my eyes the pain got worse,” he added. “I wanted to breathe but I couldn’t because my face was covered in pepper spray and every time I breathed I was nauseous.”
“I was afraid, I was no longer a protester, I was an object.”
A female student said that after the first two sprays, “I was singled out as an individual and sprayed in the face.”
“I was blind. My skin was on fire,” she said. “I didn’t know where I was, I was terrified.”
“I was carried to the ambulance, fortunately, someone found me with baking soda and began to treat my eyes,” she said.
“I was blind for about thirty minutes and my body was in excruciating pain,” she added. “I was taken by ambulance to the hospital and I was given IVs to my eyes with saline solution.”
“That night I couldn’t sleep, I felt unsafe, I felt terrified,” she added, “This is disturbing to me, I should not feel unsafe on my own campus.”
Another female student who was pepper sprayed told the crowd she had spent the summer in Palestine and saw demonstrators there pepper sprayed and “I never ever thought that I would come back to Davis and experience that again. I was horrified.”
“I had no idea I was sprayed, I saw poor David [Buchelle] come out and he was in pain,” she said. “I broke the link and I helped him… It was a horrifying experience seeing him like that screaming ‘my eyes, my eyes, I can’t see please someone help me.’ “
Ian Lee, a freshman, was one of those hit with the pepper spray, andhe said he has never been one to make a speech, but after watching the interview on Sunday night with Chancellor Katehi he believed he needed to address what he called an interview “filled with lies.”
He asked the chancellor if she would send in riot police if the outdoor club camped on the quad, “So you have to admit the only reason that you sent in riot police was because of the political intentions of our movement.”
“You have to admit that you sent in riot police because you are scared of our right to speak and assemble,” he added.
Another student proclaimed that not only did being peppered sprayed “hurt” but he called the actions “unexceptional.”
“Video of us being pepper sprayed has circulated worldwide because, only because, people don’t expect nice, non-violent students at a major university at DAVIS to be victims of police violence,” he said. He noted that poor people and people of color experience this violence daily, referencing Oscar Grant.
The Occupy movement is often criticized for its lack of leadership and demands, but this student turned that criticism on its head.
He argued, “This movement has energized people in a way unseen for decades because we do not ask for the authorities to make small adjustments to a cruel system. We do not demand that they change the system that they created. We change the system!”
Another female student addressed the issue that the camp was unsafe because non-UC Davis community members were there.
“That’s a tactic of fear, teaching us to fear our community members,” she said. “What do we have to fear from the people who live in Davis? Absolutely nothing, they’re here to support us not hurt us.”
“I want to define a community member as someone who will protect me, someone who will hold my hand and make me stronger as riot cops approach,” she said. “UC Davis riot cops are not my community and I don’t want to see them on our campus ever again.”
A male student got up and said, “I’m a student at UC Davis and I was arrested last Friday.”
He added, “I’m also a military veteran and after ten years I figured it was my right to be able to sit down and support my fellow students and a right to assemble. And for that I was brutally pulled from the line and arrested by UC Davis riot police.”
Nathan Brown, an Assistant Professor in the English Department, sent an open letter to the Chancellor calling for her resignation.
He spoke to Chancellor Katehi through his speech, telling her, “What we see in the chancellor’s statements are the same techniques of backpedaling and obfuscation that are used by the powers that be every time there is an act of police violence in this country.”
“They are efforts to defer and displace criticism,” he added, as well. “Defer and displace calls for her resignation. Those calls now number in the tens of thousands.”
“There is no place on our campus for administrators who order the use of force against peaceful protestors,” he said.
He would later be joined by the English Department faculty who also called for the “chancellor’s immediate resignation and the end of the practice for forcibly removing non-violent student, faculty, staff and community protesters by the police on the UC Davis campus.”
Davis’ two representatives in the legislature would issue statements to the media today, though neither were attendance at the rally.
Senator Lois Wolk said, “Freedom of speech is as essential to academic life as the air we breathe. I urge Chancellor Katehi to reaffirm the values of UC Davis and the campus community. The investigation should be concluded rapidly and trust must be restored on campus. The policies and practices that resulted in such a disproportional use of force need to be changed.”
Assemblymember Mariko Yamada added, “The disturbing pepper-spraying of non-violent UC Davis students is now under independent investigation. As fact-finding proceeds, I commend the students and the greater campus community for coming together and advancing the discourse peacefully.”
“Since Friday, students, alumni and community members have contacted our office about the incident and its aftermath. I can assure you that our office continues to monitor the situation closely,” she said.
Assemblymember Yamada concluded, “All of us are angry about the public disinvestments in higher education; children and seniors, healthcare, housing, transportation and public safety have also been hard hit. With ‘trigger cuts’ looming, this discussion is far from over. How we join forces to refocus our spending priorities is our biggest challenge ahead.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting