Sunday Commentary: Ten Years Later… Pepper Spray

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – It is hard to imagine that ten years have gone by since the pepper spray incident at UC Davis—a day that has been one of those defining moments not only professionally, but personally.  Looking back, it is even more hard to imagine what was going through the minds of the university and police for the need to clear the quad in the face of non-violent, seated protesters.

I was talking recently with one of the people who was there, and one thing that stands out in my mind is that I always viewed pepper spray as a police brutality event—the police used extraordinary bad judgment in using that level of force against people who were seated and protesting.

In a lot of ways, this was a middle ground event.  It was after my foray into police oversight that started in 2006.  And it coincided with things like Brianna Holmes and the shooting of Luis Gutierrez.  On the other hand, it was pre-Michael Brown, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the series of police killings that occurred starting in 2014.  And it was nearly a decade before George Floyd.

Policing was not yet on the radar of so many activists and leaders as we have seen in the days since Ferguson and more recently since George Floyd.

At the same time, at the time, the students involved saw this as a battle for their education and who controls the university.

This is the view that Ian Lee, who was one of those pepper sprayed, pushed back from on Thursday.

He said, “In the passive memories that most people (have) within this region, the pepper spray incident is remembered as a ‘misuse of police force or ridiculous overreaction from the police to a student protest.’

“I’d like to challenge this interpretation,” he said.  “As you’ve seen all too clearly, over the last 10 years, these misuses of police force are a pattern. They target working class communities. And in particular, they target working class communities of color.”

He noted, “I’ve sometimes wondered if that, if that was one of the reasons that the video of us being pepper-sprayed went so viral, well-to-do white folks were just not able to believe that police assaulted students that was often perceived as a middle-class white university.”

Like others, Lee saw pepper spray inextricably linked with the issues that they were protesting at the time.  But also maybe now in retrospect, the connection between police power and concentrated poverty and income inequality.

I contrast are the remarks I heard from the students on Thursday to those issued by Chancellor Gary May.

He gave his initial impression from November 2011 and then added, “Today, we acknowledge that this regrettable and unnecessary incident is part of our history, no matter how painful. It served as the catalyst to improve the environment for our students, faculty and staff with a focus on safety, well-being and belonging.”

And of course he focused on the changes made by the campus since then—at least with respect to policing and respecting students’ right to freedom of speech.

Here I think the university does deserve credit.  I think one of the biggest mistakes that police make is trying to engage protest.  Certainly with respect to peaceful and non-violent protest.  Taking a hands-off approach often, but not always, avoids the critical kind of escalation that we saw not only ten years ago but in many places last summer.

Even someone who was out there ten years ago, Kristin Koster, seems to acknowledge the improvement.

She said, “We have a lot of freedom… we really have the ability to do a lot thanks to the people who sat here on this quad and were pepper sprayed 10 years ago right now.”

At the same time, I think the lessons taken by Chancellor May have fallen well short of some of the fundamental issues that the Occupy Movement attempted to address.

The gap between rich and poor has only grown—and while universities are rightly seen as tools by which young people raised in poverty can raise their standard of living, we still see the tremendous gap between the ever-increasing cost of higher education and the huge and lucrative salaries that Chancellor May and upper administration at UC Davis, and indeed all campuses, see.

A common theme in the criminal legal system is that these inequities are not mistakes, they are intentional parts of the system.  As such, reforming police only rearranges the decks of the Titanic, it does not fix the system.

A common theme of the speeches on Thursday was abolition.

As one student, an immigrant from Costa Rico pointed out, it was a huge culture shock to see armed police on a school campus in this country.

She said, “There’s no law enforcement allowed on institutional educations in Costa Rica. So, coming here, I was really confused. I was baffled. I really could not wrap my head around it.”

She went down a list of problems with cops on college campuses, including the pepper spray incident at UC Davis.

“The presence of police on campus, it’s unwarranted,” she said.  “I read an article that included an opinion, and this student was talking about how they would feel less safe without the police on campus.”

She added, “The presence of police officers that could cost me my life does not make me feel safe.”

While I am not in general an abolitionist with regard to policing, I do wonder and have wondered quite a bit whether there is really a need for a separate University of California police force.

After all, there are overlapping and adjacent jurisdictions—the City of Davis Police are next door, and the Yolo County Sheriffs are overlapping jurisdiction.  Why the need for a separate entity?

Around the time of the pepper spray incident I had a number of conversations with Davis city police who were at the scene and were ultimately very critical of how the situation was handled.  I also had some interesting conversation about the overall lack of training and sophistication of the college campus police.

Eliminating the UC Davis Police or the UC Police as a whole will eliminate this conflict between student and university and avoid a repeat of the scenario where an armed response is used to attempt to put down protest by students.

As it was, the UC Davis Police simply did not respond when students protested in front of the police station and when they put graffiti on campus.  Maybe its time to go a step further and simply contract with city and county agencies when the need actually arises.

As Kristin Koster argued, “Make the legacy of the pepper spray the abolition of police from all UC campuses, and then it’s, it’ll spread.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Sharla Cheney

    As an employee at UCD, I don’t think many students understand the need for a law enforcement presence in such a large campus. For example, they weren’t around when UCD police intervened and stopped an upset and armed former boyfriend outside his ex-girlfriend’s dorm.  The boyfriend opened fire in his determination to carry out his intent to kill.  They aren’t aware of how many times police have responded to incidents of unhinged people. Then there is the theft that is rampant on campus – everything from bikes to night time break-ins.  The sight of police may be a trigger, but the police are not a obvious presence and I rarely see them unless specifically called.

    I was present at the pepper-spraying incident 10 years ago.  What I witnessed was a colossal failure of duty to serve and protect the community.  It just made no sense and change was needed.

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