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Occupy UC and Police Brutality and Hope

In case you missed it, students at UC Davis recently held a nonviolent protest in solidarity with students at UC Berkeley, as inspired by the Occupy movements nationwide. At both campuses students erected tent cities, and in both cases the police, fully clad in riot outfits, came in to forcibly clear the tents and arrest the protesters. Here's the sad, sickening video of UC Davis college students getting pepper sprayed by a callous, abusive cop:

These are students exercising their First Amendment rights. These are not trouble-makers. They are not threatening anyone's safety. They are US citizens, or at least here legally to earn an education. Many of them take U.S. history classes that teach them about our constitutional rights, and about how wonderful and free our country is.

As I watched this video, a few questions come to mind:
  1. Who ordered the police onto campus in riot gear? No matter who made the call, the chancellor is ultimately responsible for this act. A brave, junior professor recently wrote an open letter to Chancellor Linda Katehi calling for her resignation. It's hard to argue with his reasoning. A snippet is pasted below. I honestly don't know if I'd be this brave if such an incident occurred on my campus. I hope I could be...
    On Wednesday November 16, you issued a letter by email to the campus community. In this letter, you discussed a hate crime which occurred at UC Davis on Sunday November 13. In this letter, you express concern about the safety of our students. You write, “it is particularly disturbing that such an act of intolerance should occur at a time when the campus community is working to create a safe and inviting space for all our students.” You write, “while these are turbulent economic times, as a campus community, we must all be committed to a safe, welcoming environment that advances our efforts to diversity and excellence at UC Davis.”
    I will leave it to my colleagues and every reader of this letter to decide what poses a greater threat to “a safe and inviting space for all our students” or “a safe, welcoming environment” at UC Davis: 1) Setting up tents on the quad in solidarity with faculty and students brutalized by police at UC Berkeley? or 2) Sending in riot police to disperse students with batons, pepper-spray, and tear-gas guns, while those students sit peacefully on the ground with their arms linked? Is this what you have in mind when you refer to creating “a safe and inviting space?” Is this what you have in mind when you express commitment to “a safe, welcoming environment?”
  2. Where are the libertarians? Where are the anti-tax, constitution-worshiping, tea-partying, "true" Americans? Why weren't they standing around brandishing their constitutionally guaranteed firearms, keeping the police at bay? Or is only one amendment important?
  3. Where are the Christians? I'm sure there are followers of Christ interspersed among the OWS protesters, but where are the mega churches? Why haven't they mobilized in defense of the poor and the oppressed? Why is it that they come out in droves to deny law-abiding citizens the right to marry, but they sit on their hands (or SUVs) when it comes to economic injustice or the oppression of the rights of others? Or is this sort of thing less important than this sort of thing? Again, I'm sure that there are many individual Christians are sympathetic to the plight of the poor. But where are Rick Warren and his thousands of followers? (Here's a Google search of his website for "Occupy Wall Street.")
  4. I really wonder what those cops must have been thinking with the chants of "Shame On You" rising all around them. I'm sure most of them justify it in their minds somehow. But, still, I wonder how many of them really felt shame. For those of them who did, I feel sorry for them. What other job options might they have during these times? What else could they do but follow orders and clock in for work the next day? I'd really hate to be one of them trying to look my kid or my wife in the eye at night. But at the same time, wouldn't I be happy to have a job?
  5. This response by the students at UC Davis is amazing, encouraging, and somehow exhilarating. Could this have played out any more dramatically and appropriately if it had been written into a movie script?

Over the past year I've found myself extremely pessimistic about our country when I think in national terms. We live in a time of endless wars against abstractions such as drugs and terrorism. Funding for education, social services and science continues to drop nation wide while our country's leadership searches for new countries to bomb and invade. Three weeks of war in Afganistan would cover California's deficit and provide for its public schools, public works, and social services for the poor; a little over 2 weeks would pay for the James Webb Space Telescope. We live in a country in which the amount of taxes avoided annually by a single corporation would fund NASA's science division (the corporation in question got a refund instead). We have a congress completely ill suited to deal with our country's economic problems because they have been purchased by the same people who wrecked our economy while escaping prosecution.

However, I'm deeply encouraged once again when I think locally about my family, my neighbors, my colleagues, the students in my department and their heart for education and outreach. Somehow people on scales of dozens can be good in the truest sense of the word. Yet when gathered by the millions, peaceful protesters get pepper sprayed and arrested for peacefully protesting economic injustices. Wars are waged, both externally and internally. The Occupy Wall Street movement is the first national movement that I've felt hopeful about. It's the first to take the goodness of my local surroundings and focus it on a large, effective scale. I'm also encouraged by its aims: to bring attention to the extreme income inequality in the U.S. To bring attention to the fact that the American Dream is an abstraction. As sad as that first video is, the fact that the students linked their arms even tighter and stood in the face of such brutality fast gives me hope. They truly believe in what they are doing. I wonder if I could be that courageous.

This is about the most cogent thought I can muster at the moment. I don't have all my thoughts worked out yet. Part of me wonders how novel my fear of the degradation of our rights is, and how much it resembles some 35-year-old living in 1960, or 1901, or 1870. But another part of me just can't rest easily with what's happened in our country since 9/11. I dunno. I'll keep thinking on it...


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