Police Violence on Peaceful Protesters Threatens the Health of Our Democracy

By: Linda Lye
Police at UC Davis - via boingboing.net

We've heard it all over the country, that Occupy encampments must come down because of "health and safety concerns."

That was the justification offered by UC Davis Chancellor Katehi in a statement issued on Friday, November 18, 2011, calling for tents at the fledging Occupy UC Davis encampment to "be peacefully removed" by 3 pm that afternoon. Later that day, brave students sat cross-legged, peacefully linking arms. But the UC Davis Police Department, charged with creating a "safe and secure environment"on the UC Davis campus, proceeded to methodically, repeatedly, and unconstitutionally douse peaceful student protesters with pepper spray. Just in case it was unclear, using pepper spray on peaceful protesters isunconstitutional.

Unfortunately, the UC Davis Police Department isn't the only law enforcement agency around that didn't get that memo. Just a week earlier, the UC Berkeley Police Department responded to the apparently imminent safety risk of tents on campus by beating arm-linked Occupy Cal protesters with batons. And the Oakland Police Department is responsible for flash bang grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets and other so-called "less lethal" munitions beingfired into crowds of peaceful Occupy Oakland supporters. (We've sued OPD and the federal court will be hearing our motion to stop OPD from continuing to use excessive force on peaceful protesters on November 30, 2011.)

In a bizarrely uninformed statement for the Chancellor of a major research university, UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau initially claimed that the Occupy Cal protesters, by linking arms, were "not non-violent," apparently forgetting this iconic gesture of the civil rights movement.

Chancellor Birgeneau quickly recanted after actually reviewing videos of the scene, which he subsequently acknowledged were "very disturbing." UC Davis Chancellor Katehi has now agreed to convene a task force. And after video of the UC Davis pepper-spraying incident went viral this weekend, UC President Mark Yudof issued a statement embracing the need "to take strong action to recommit to the ideal of peaceful protest." (No similar commitments by OPD to date.)

The press releases coming out of the University of California are, at least now, making the appropriate nods to the time-honored tradition of free speech. But this is all too little too late. Why did UC Davis ever think it was appropriate to deploy police in riot gear armed with batons, pepper spray and shotguns of some kind? A fetish for Bull Connor tactics?  

In dealing with the Occupy movement, cities and now universities have lost sight of the big picture. The biggest threat to health and safety is not a tent on a lawn, but the threat to the very health of our democracy when we respond to peaceful political expression with the violent excesses of a police state.

Learn more:

ACLU Nov. 21 Letter to UC Davis Chancellor Katehi

ACLU and National Lawyers Guild File Suit Against Oakland Police Department

ACLU to OPD No Seriously, Hand Over the Info

Oakland Police Raid on Occupy Oakland Raises Serious Questions

When Will the Oakland Police Learn

Oakland Police Internal Investigation Isn't Good Enough

This is What the First Amendment Looks Like

Linda Lye is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.