Following the Nov. 19, 2011 press conference held in response to UC Davis police officers’ pepper spraying of students, Reverend Kristin Stoneking was called to mediate between protesters and UC Davis administration.
Stoneking is a United Methodist minister who has served as director of the Cal Aggie Christian Association (CA House) for 13 years. Her leadership has produced the Multi-Faith Living Community (MLC), a residence area created in response to religious misunderstandings that resulted from 9/11 and to stand as a symbol of CA House’s values of compassion, empathy and tolerance.
Prior to the pepper-spray incident, Stoneking had been involved with the students who were occupying, helping to shuttle food and other resources to students on the Quad. Although not an employee of the university, she has formed deep relationships with students, giving her a broad perspective on issues and events at UC Davis, Stoneking said.
Which was why, on that evening in November, she was called to mediate a tense situation between some of UC Davis’ highest paid officials and hordes of students enraged over the use of pepper spray on the Quad just the day before.
“I think the administrator who called me knew I could do and say some things that someone who worked for the university couldn’t, and had credibility that someone who worked for the university didn’t have,” Stoneking said.
Ari Polsky, senior studio art major and resident of the MLC, agreed that Stoneking was the appropriate person to help find a solution to the problem that night.
“She is a leader that the administration was familiar with and trusted, and helped ease their fears about the outside student body,” Polsky said. “She is a respected leader also on the side of the students and shared many of their concerns. She was able to speak to both sides, and help center both sides of the conversations.”
The press conference, which was scheduled to include Chancellor Linda Katehi, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Fred Wood and UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, was promptly cut short when protesters entered the building and demanded that their concerns be addressed. Enosh Baker, a UC Davis alumnus who was present at the press conference that night, said that the secrecy of the conference was what drew protesters in such large numbers.
“After receiving a leak that it was taking place, the word got put out right away,” Baker said. “And there was already a lot of momentum from the events of the 18th. Folks who had never been a part of the movement up until then joined folks who had been involved since its inception. Since it was supposed to be a press conference, the people wanted to be heard.”
But because of such high tensions at that time, Stoneking acknowledged that any constructive exchange of dialogue would not have been possible. After entering the building with a student representative, she focused on finding a solution over two hours of discussion with multiple groups of administrators.
“I said that it was important that [Katehi] understand that the students wanted to see her, and to see her seeing them. We came up with a scenario where she would leave, be seen, and get the face-to-face contact [with the students] that was necessary. It had to be silent and respectful, not a shouting match. It was the best we could hope for.”
Video footage of Stoneking escorting Katehi’s silent ‘walk of shame’ has, like the footage of the initial pepper-spray incident, gone viral. The UC Davis community is currently waiting for the findings of the task force called to investigate the incident.
“We’re probably going to find out what we already know, that responsibility in an institution as large as the university is diffused,” Stoneking said. “What I’m afraid is that the investigations will allow us to skip over the real work, which is to decide what healing is and how to use this experience to become the kind of community we can be.”
Rather, Stoneking expressed a heightened need for compassion, as understanding and empathy are critical steps for promoting positive change. Instead of waiting on results of the investigation as an excuse to get back to business as usual, empathic listening would be the key to getting everybody on the same side and on the same agenda, she said.
“Our best hope is to get everybody in a conversation to understand how everyone feels,” Stoneking said. “Students need to understand what it’s like to be a chancellor of a university — that’s a life sacrifice. Meanwhile, [Katehi] needs to understand what it’s like to be a student who has to live out of their car for a quarter because they can’t pay rent. And all of us need to understand what it’s like to be a cop.”
Just as she noted that the students’ commitment to peaceful silence channeled their power in a positive way, Stoneking believed that peaceful communication would help ensure that the collective power of the Occupy movement be used constructively.
“That night at Surge II, this great space was opened for compassion,” Stoneking said. “What can happen if we adhere to a means that [reflect] the ends that we want? Respecting each other means honoring each other to do good.”
LANI CHAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.