In light of the brutalization and arrest of Jennifer Michelle Cedeno-Ornelas, professors Seeta Chaganti and Joshua Clover argue for the disarming of UC Davis police
The brutalization and arrest of Jennifer Michelle Cedeno-Ornelas by the UC Davis police on May 6 was harrowing: the gang of cops, the full weight of uniformed bodies on her chest, her restraint in a full body suit resembling modern-day shackles in an event that looked like nothing so much as a slave capture — one of the origins of policing in the United States. Perhaps needless to say, nothing Cedeno-Ornelas might have done or not done in the bookstore could merit such violence. The confabulated claim that she was having some sort of mental health episode was self-evidently a version of “they had a gun”: a dishonest justification for unjustifiable police violence. The claim was debunked swiftly by mental health professionals who examined her, though it is hard to imagine any but the most credulous camp follower of the police would have believed it in the first place.
The UC Davis police chief insisted that this was a “type of event that is very unusual on campus.” Not so much. We have worked here long enough to know this horrifying episode is both extraordinary and familiar within an unending cascade of UC Davis police brutality. In the last decade, we might choose as a mere few examples four cops slamming an undergraduate on the hood of a police cruiser during a tuition protest in 2009 (in classic fashion, they charged her with resisting and assault, obtaining zero convictions); the globally infamous pepper-spraying of students busily sitting on the Quad in 2011 (the university was forced to pay extensive settlements) and the beating and false arrest of the “Picnic Day 5” in 2017.
No surprise here. Policing has always been violent, locating, as we noted, its American origins in the state’s sadistic regulation of dispossessed people for profit. And yet we do not mean to imply any sense of some steady state to which we must simply accustom ourselves. That is because the fear that possesses the police is growing. It is a fear growing in psychic power and firepower because it both reflects and draws from deeper fears that movements which mean to dismantle longstanding law and order structures are gaining traction. These range from the national and international Black Lives Matter movement to our campus movement here to disarm the police, which missed passage last month by the narrowest of margins.
We always knew that people fear cops and fear them with reason. The extent to which cops fear people is becoming increasingly clear. It is clear, for instance, in the ludicrously enormous army of police used to clear a recent sit-in at Johns Hopkins University — against the school’s contract with ICE and against the introduction to campus of a private police. But while people feel fear because the presence of cops renders them powerless, cops’ fear escalates and fuels violence.
Down the road in Sacramento, cops’ fear restrains a tiny 12-year-old and pulls a mesh sack over his head as if it were the extraordinary rendition of a purported terrorist; it murders Stephon Clark in cold blood around a cowardly corner. The sacrifices to these expressions of fear, the targets who draw the fear that is most deadly in its admixture with contempt, will always disproportionately be black and brown people.
Campus police forces in particular intensify our view of what is unfixable about American policing: its fatal cowardice; its white supremacy; its long commitment to producing differential citizenship, expropriation and domination on behalf of what indigenous scholar Glen Sean Coulthard names “settler capitalism.” And so they provide an especially important site at which to intervene against this sustained regime. Campus police forces magnify in our vision the harmful boundaries drawn by law and order to delineate who is part of the community and who is not. As our campus’ Ethnic and Cultural Affairs Commission rightly noted, the aggressive display of police regalia and murderous equipment make unsafe the most vulnerable students on campus. Pro-cop zeal nonetheless silenced their voices.
In the wake of Stephanie Washington’s shooting in New Haven, Joshua Cayetano urged his fellow Yale students to ask themselves: “Is my safety ensured at the expense of someone else’s?” None of us are granted escape from this question. But we would go a step further and suggest that the very assumption of safety as something ensured by police is wrong at its core, a mere ideology of power, and that campus police in truth make the entirety of their communities unsafe. Recently, Yale, Columbia and UC Davis police have magnified the agenda implicit to all policing: within the supposedly peaceable terrain of campus, where we are both compelled to be and expected to share a sense of purpose and community, the truth of the police is brought up close in all its intolerable violence, with black and brown bodies shot at, bent backward, pinned over tables, wrestled to the ground, stifled while screaming.
We have lingered enough on the daily terror, the immanent violence, the spectacle of brutality. We must turn to what is to be done. In some sense it is quite uncomplicated. Surely the treatment of Jennifer Michelle Cedeno-Ornelas will have turned the heart of at least one ASUCD Senate voter, and the measure to disarm the police, developed and argued fearlessly by student-workers, will carry at the next opportunity.
Just as surely it will be clear that the violence done in this most recent episode did not require the use of a pistol or taser, not even a nightstick. These are adjuncts and guarantors of police violence, not the violence itself. Which is to say that we must take our own experiences, recognitions and arguments seriously, take them to their clear conclusion, and demand not just the disarming but the demobilization of the campus police. That too will not be the end of this freedom struggle. It will be a necessary moment along the way.
Written by: Seeta Chaganti and Joshua Clover
Seeta Chaganti is a professor of English and Joshua Clover is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Davis.