Mind-Numbing Protests, Meet Pepper Spray

You have to really work at it to get arrested at a University of California campus protest. University administrators look at protest as part of the education process — and they frequently issue memos stating how much they agree with left-wing causes. Administrators don’t want campus police to arrest students — especially students who attend demonstrations against state cuts to higher education.

Thus, students have had to ramp up dissident behavior if they want to be handcuffed and detained. Campus activists have begun to follow Occupy Wall Street’s lead and set up tents to create illegal encampments. When campus police have threatened to take away the tents, protesters have engaged in what some police departments call “active resistance” — such as linking arms to prevent police from doing their jobs.

On Nov. 18, 2011, a group of demonstrators won a great victory for their cause. In flagrant violation of campus rules, they set up tents in the UC Davis quad. Police were sent to disperse the encampment. As officers began to arrest protesters, students surrounded police as they chanted, “If you let them go, we will let you leave.” They linked arms and eventually goaded two campus cops to use pepper spray.

Video of the exchange went viral. The protesters had won. They could portray themselves as victims, their highest calling. They could point fingers at authoritarian law enforcement. Their 30 seconds of fame would launch — not a disciplinary hearing that ends with a warning, as should happen — multiple investigations that have combed through 10,000 pages of records and cost several hundred thousand dollars.

You may have read about the report by a task force headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso that leads with the conclusion, “The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented.”

That is so true.

Campus cops repeatedly warned activists. UC Davis campus police Lt. John Pike told protesters that “pepper ball guns” would be “deployed” and that they should understand that if they stayed, then they would be “subject to the use of force.”

Rather than do the smart thing and leave — in order to be free to protest legally another day — one activist taunted Pike: “You are going to shoot me for sitting here? Is that what you said, officer?” (Presumably, that activist had the smarts to get into UC Davis.)

The Reynoso report has a great deal to say about the department’s unnecessary use of pepper spray Nov. 18, but it barely deals with the need to educate students about the difference between free speech and civil disobedience. That is, other than recommending that UC consistently support free speech and protest while communicating “the consequences for breaches of the rules and policies,” it doesn’t sufficiently address the issue of student ignorance. It doesn’t plainly recommend that know-it-all students be told that they can be jailed — and police are authorized to use force — when they break laws against trespassing and illegal encampment.

You can see why students might not be clear on the concept. Certain chancellors — Davis’ Linda Katehi and Berkeley’s Robert Birgeneau — have authorized arrests at illegal demonstrations, only to discourage prosecution after the fact.

Also, the Reynoso report mentions a Davis professor who offered extra credit to students who attended an Occupy UCD rally and wrote a two-page report on what they saw and learned. A Freedom of Expression Support Team volunteer who spent the night of Nov. 15 with protesters who occupied Mrak Hall told investigators that another professor, Joshua Clover, warned students about cooperating with the administration and told them, “Right now, we’re the law.”

As we discussed the report, Alan Brownstein, a UC Davis law professor on the task force, reminded me that the focus of the report was a finding of the police’s “unreasonable use of force.”

I hear that. But I cannot help but see the unreasonable use of smarts. Davis offers students this amazing opportunity to spend four years learning about the world. Sadly, some of those students end up in classes taught by ideologues who stoke the delusion that far-left intellectuals are an oppressed minority.

These kids think they are egalitarians. But they benefit from a system that lets elite students flout the law but won’t cut a break for campus cops who try to enforce rules that are supposed to apply to all.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

Debra J. Saunders

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Debra J. Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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