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Davis, California

Friday, February 23, 2024

Column: Taglines of our time

It’s hard for me to imagine just exactly how bad it is to get a face-full of pepper spray. What’s even more difficult for me to understand is how it might have felt to sit on the ground with my arms entwined in a show of peaceful solidarity and be subjected to what has become the catchphrase of our time, “Police Brutality.”

The simple yet glaring idiom has come to signify so much, has come to represent an amalgamation of so many separate incidents that to use it now makes each seem connected to a collective whole.

There’s a difference here between other instances of “police brutality” and the one enacted on Friday on our Quad. Most of the incidents we think of when we hear the phrase involve individualized action. That is, instead of a battalion of police officers responding to a non-violent protest, they involve an officer, or sometimes two, taking liberties with their power for supremacy in a momentary circumstance. It seems important not to confuse the two.

On one side is an officer clearly outside the law, such as when a police officer shot an unarmed man at BART a few years ago. On the other is one well within it, well within what he was expected to do. Which, somehow, doesn’t feel comforting. Where the isolated officer in the BART station was acting as a separate, unconnected agent of his own volition, the officer on Friday was acting on behalf of another.

I’ve never stood before a line of seated, peaceful protesters and had to decide whether or not to drench them in pepper spray, so I can’t really empathize with the man. But, in this instance, where empathy might usually be a positive thing, I’m glad I can’t. More concerning than how he and his fellow officers reacted to the crowd of protesters is the fact they were involved with reacting to them at all.

The protesting students were advised with a written warning to remove their tents, people have argued. But, logically speaking, why would the demonstrators, who are protesting the very system that ordered them to disband, comply? When has silent compliance gained the oppressed change? Why, with the throng of police officers before them, equipped with rubber bullets, tear gas, batons and pepper spray, “riot gear” as it is called, would the protesters concede to the authority seeking to abolish their efforts and quell their collective voice?

Why — and perhaps this is a better question — were the police ever summoned to disband a collection of peaceful student protesters? Who made this call, this decision, to enact this violence on this campus?

The answer, which has been widely circulated, is our chancellor. The head of our campus, our academic lives, the individual in power because of the money we give in exchange for our education, which is, written or otherwise, a human right.

We as the student body are the ones paying for her authority, we are the ones affording her the privilege of overseeing our university and our campus and our academic lives. We are the ones leaving college the most indebted generation ever, and are doing so while her salary increases as tuition affordability decreases.

Indirectly or otherwise, as the head of our university, to whom we all pay thousands of dollars a quarter, we are funding her leadership, her position, and, what’s more, her decision to enact violence against us.

We must ask ourselves now, is the money we are paying for our education worth it? Maybe that seems like an easy question. But, is it so easy that the decision to protest comes immediately to all of us?

I would imagine the protesters from Friday, our colleagues, our instructors, our peers, our friends — our chemical-burned, beaten friends would say, without faltering, without hesitating and without resignation, yes.

EVAN WHITE can be reached at emwhite@ucdavis.edu.


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