UC Davis pepper spray and the power of nonviolent witness

BRIAN NGUYEN REUTERS University of California Davis students covered in pepper spray sit during an “Occupy UCD” demonstration in Davis, … Continued



University of California Davis students covered in pepper spray sit during an “Occupy UCD” demonstration in Davis, California November 18, 2011.

Millions of Americans have now viewed the YouTube videos of a University of California Davis police officer callously pepper-spraying a seated line of non-violent students. The video has now gone viral.

This is chemical warfare against American citizens simply for exercising the right to dissent in a peaceful fashion. This is what we have reaped as a nation from the militarization of our police forces in the so-called “war on terror.”

Police officers, in the many military-type operations conducted against #occupywallstreet protests, dress in full battle gear, use chemical weapons, conduct stealth operations in the dead of night, and systematically keep the press away, even with the threat of violence. This was, indeed, the kind of military operation that was conducted to “clear” Zuccotti park, the home of #occupywallstreet.

It is not necessary to go down this road of responding with excessive force to American citizens. Indeed, what has happened on the UC Davis campus following the pepper spraying of students provides a lesson in how to peacefully deal with deep conflict without violence, and indeed a lesson perhaps in how faith leaders can lend a hand in this effort.

Following the pepper-spraying of the students, the chancellor of UC Davis, Linda Katehi, called a press conference. Upset students gathered outside, feeling shut out. The students eventually pushed into the room where the press conference was being held; though they left peacefully, the chancellor retreated into another room.

The campus chaplain, Rev. Kristen Stoneking, was called to mediate between the administration and the students. The outcome was this extraordinary witness of students standing or seated in non-violent and mute witness as the chancellor passes among them, walking safely to her car with Rev. Stoneking.



UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi walks with Rev. Stoneking past silent protesters as she leaves her office at the campus in Davis, California November 19, 2011.

Rev. Stoneking writes on her own blog about this moment and I believe there are crucial lessons in this for our way forward as a nation.

“What was clear to me was that once again, the students’ willingness to show restraint kept us from spiraling into a cycle of violence upon violence. There was no credible threat to the Chancellor, only a perceived one. The situation was not hostile. And what was also clear to me is that whether they admit it or not, the administrators that were inside the building are afraid. And exhausted. And human. And the suffering that has been inflicted is real. The pain present as the three of us watched the video of students being pepper sprayed was palpable. A society is only truly free when all persons take responsibility for their actions; it is only upon taking responsibility that healing can come.”

There are so many important themes in this campus chaplain’s blog post that we need to take with profound seriousness as a society:

The willingness to refrain from violence interrupts the spiral of violence.



UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi leaves an “Occupy UCD” rally on campus in Davis, Califonia November 21, 2011. Katehi apologized to jeering students on Monday for police use of pepper spray against campus protesters in a standoff captured by video and widely replayed on television and the Internet.

Fear is an accelerant for violence. Deal with the fear and you reduce the threat of violence.

The pain of those treated violently by police is real and must be kept in the forefront of any attempt to “move forward.”

All persons in this society must take responsibility for us to turn from this disastrous course we seem set upon.

Religious leaders can be a resource for this work, though the students themselves had to act in the way that they did in order for this remarkably inspiring moment of mute witness to unjust suffering caused against UC Davis students to occur.

If the United States military can now be considering talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan as a way to find a peaceful exit from that dreadful war, surely American police departments can find ways to demilitarize their approach to #occupywallstreet, find ways to talk to demonstrators and use respect and negotiation as a way forward.

We can do that.