November 29, 2011

“Hella Occupy” and the End of Public Education

Filed under: occupyucdavis, POV — dhi @ 10:00 am

by Carl Whithaus, Director and Professor, University Writing Program

The last ten days have been a flurry of emails, rallies, tweeter, fb updates, and meetings for me.  Having police show up on your campus in riot gear and pepper spray a group of students makes a writing program director’s life interesting to say the least.

I wanted to take a moment to write to this list-serv, as a recounting of what I have experienced, as a way to document the courage of our students, and as an attempt to document the issues that the students are talking about as they camp in the cold, damp 40 degree nights, as they assemble in larger groups, as they dash home for Thanksgiving, and continue to go to class.

The ghastly pepper spraying of students by Lt. John Pike and one other UC Davis police officer happened on Friday Nov. 18th.  It happened as our Chancellor was meeting with our Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee.  It appears that the report that was given to Chancellor Linda Katehi about the “police action” on Friday was “all clear, all went well.”  No one in the admin or on the police force appears to have watched YouTube or understood what had happened late on Friday.

By Saturday, they knew.  And Saturday night is one of the amazing moments here that did not become a meme, that did not get picked up by The Daily Show.  Saturday night 500, 750, 1000? students surrounded the building where the Chancellor and the Police Chief (not yet on administrative leave) were giving a press conference–they were doing damage control, containment.  A local minister was called in to mediate between the gathered students and those in the building, and she brought in two students to talk with the Chancellor.  My understanding is that they watched the YouTube video with the Chancellor.  One of the students told the Chancellor what it felt like to be pepper sprayed.  When Chancellor Katehi left the building, we had our second–less seen but equally, or perhaps more, stunning YouTube moments–the 750+ students sat.  They sat in silence.  Non-violent silence.  The walk of shame, some have called it.

This silence was for a Chancellor who had an undergraduate activist at Athens Polytech in November 1973.  What most of us faculty and students did not know that Saturday night, what most Americans don’t know is that “17 November” is Greece’s “9/11.”  On November 17, 1973, para-military forces rolled onto the campus of Athens Polytech and crushed the student occupation–13 kids were killed.  It was the beginning of the end for the military junta.

But the bitter irony, the sadness is that Linda Katehi, who had been a student at Athens Polytech, who knew what militarized police forces could do, had authorized the police action at UC Davis.

On Monday, we rallied.  The community rallied, 4,000+ on the Quad.  We gathered on the site where Lt. John Pike had sprayed the 21 students, their arms interlocked, behind their backs, sitting on the ground, faces down.  Students, faculty, alumni, community members, union leaders, folks from Occupy Oakland.  We gathered.  It was a crowd, but mostly it was students, their backpacks next to them on the damp grass.  It was foggy and cold when the General Assembly began, but part way through the sky turned blue and the sun emerged, only to disappear again.

I realize this piece is going on too long.  I wanted to say that the UC Davis students started protesting two weeks ago (1) because of a proposed 81% increase in tuition and fees at all UCs and (2) because of the police violence that had been unleashed a week earlier on protesting students and faculty at UC Berkeley.  They had sympathies with the Occupy Movement, but these protests were about the move to make the UCs into “state-sited” schools.  The complex social, political, and economic mechanisms behind this change are beyond this already too long email, but the students see the UC Regents as about to make a decision that will signal the real move to the end of the UCs as public, state institutions.  The students know what this means from their lived experiences.  The fear is palpable, and not just among the protestors, but in classes when you talk to first-year and second year students.  We could be ending access to top-quality higher education, to an upwardly-mobile future for a good number of the middle-class kids from California.  We live in scary times.

I’m proud that the students have come forward.  I’m proud of their non-violence.  I’m engaged in many, many conversations with students and faculty.  We’re battling to make sure the investigative committees are fair, that they will be lead by unbiased, knowledge people (not by William Bratton who not only was NYC and LAPD police chief, but whose security firm Kroll has contracts with 3 UC campuses!)  [Do our administrators never think when they make these appointments, gheez?]

btw, “hella” is a northern California term.  It means “hell of,” as in great, good, big, tremendous.  As my 15-year old explained last night, it is not something that I am allowed to say.  “You have to be 15-23 to say it, Dad.”  But it is now a shirt.  If you have a moment, go look http://twitpic.com/7lclrm  It’s not a casual pepper spray cop meme, but something better.  Art, a voice, spoken drawn, given away in the tent city that is now on the UC Davis Quad.

To show solidarity with the students, the Writing Program has set up a tent on the Quad.  It’s open for tutoring, but also as a space to talk about writing with our faculty and graduate students.  It’s a space where folks can write about this movement, this moment, this struggle.  There are many stories and many perspectives; some are like the one I’ve shared, others are radically different.  But we want to hear them, write them, think about them….. Finals approach.  There is much more to be written, but never enough time.

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