UC Davis' Peppergate Meltdown: Only the Tip of the Glacier

The Peppergate scandal at UC Davis is no more about Lt. Pike and bungling cops on the Quad than Watergate was about E. Howard Hunt and burglars in the Democratic headquarters. Or, at least, it shouldn't be--not if the University is to have a soul going forward.

There are no unanswered questions about what exactly happened out on the Quad. The whole world saw the video of the pepper spraying. And hundreds of witnesses and videos caught the entire "police action" that day from beginning to end. No need to hunt for missing clues out there.

So what questions do need to be investigated by the five independent commissions commissioned to investigate?

The real scandal is about what went on behind closed doors on the fifth floor of Mrak Hall and at the President Yudoff's office before and after the 15 minutes of infamy on the Quad.

The real question is not: Will the Chancellor be asked to step down?

The real question is: Will the "Mrak Hall tapes" (11/17 phone conferences, emails, etc.) ever see the light of day? And if they are released, will there be gaps?

That's the gut-check question we all ought to be thinking about if we care about the University.

Chancellor Katehi is certainly no President Nixon. But the potential for harm to the integrity of the public institution is just as real, just as grave, so long as the whole truth (regarding the administrators' intentions and actions) remains undisclosed. "Fiat Lux," (let there be light) as the motto of the University of California proclaims.

The University initially refused to disclose the names of the team of 13 administrators involved in the decisions that led to the pepper spray attack. When the names were finally released three weeks later, the University declined to disclose any of the substance of those discussions.

At the headwaters of the scandal is the University's non-credible justification for sending in the police in the first place: "safety." This rationale so reeks of hypocrisy that it fails the smell test from all the way across the Quad.

The list of those 13 administrators who were involved in the decision to deploy the police against the protest encampment suggests that the focus of the discussion was primarily concerned with managing perceptions within "the campus community," and beyond.

If the tents themselves had posed a real threat to public safety, the officers would have not left them in the hands of the protesters as they in fact chose to do on November 18.

If the Chancellor did actually direct the police to avoid making any arrests, it seems impossible to make any sense out of the decision by the police to begin their "action" by immediately handcuffing a number of the protesters.

The resort to handcuffs may have been standard police procedure for dealing with individuals "interfering with execution of police duties." But is it reasonable to apply this idea of "interfering with police duties" to this situation? The assignment of "tent removal" to heavily armed police officers is itself so out of character of standard police assignments as to be ridiculous -- unless there was an expectation that arrests would be required to accomplish the task, in which case, the Chancellor's belated story that she had specifically given the opposite direction is simply not credible.

Once the handcuffs went on, and the protesters and bystanders began chanting "Let them Go!" and "We will leave!" and "Shame on you!" the police and the University found themselves waist deep in rapidly rising flood waters of a toxic public relations disaster. At that point, the actual removal of the tents (by the police) immediately "evaporated" into the non-issue it had actually always been. And the true objectives of the police action rose to the surface: that is, the removal of protesters and the suppression of their "conduct," i.e. the suppression of their effective political speech -- the effectiveness of which resulted directly from the fact that the speech was happening in a time, place and manner not authorized by University administrators.

Still, the University might have chosen a different "exit strategy" by: a) slowing things down, taking some time out (with everyone still in their same physical positions), and b) engaging in some dialog, conversations between the police forces and the protesters.

The police realized that the size of the crowd was bound to grow over time, making it perhaps more difficult to extract its "forces," without releasing the handcuffed protesters. The University had already decided it did not want to engage in a dialog with the protesters on the terms and on the contested ground the protesters had chosen.

The truth is the University administrators were never seriously interested in talking with the protesters -- until after the pepper spray video went viral.

It is undeniable that the protesters' intentions and actions on November 18 were entirely non-violent, extremely well disciplined and united -- better disciplined and better coordinated than those of the campus police force. This show of (communication of) peaceful discipline aroused immediate active support from the "indigenous, civilian bystanders" on the Quad that day. This spontaneous, active civilian support, in turn, led directly to the implosion of the University's original strategy (for accomplishing the elimination of the protest encampment) -- i.e. their show of military force.

Finally, what is most clear from all of this is that the occupation of the Quad was absolutely necessary for any real discussion of the protest issues (oppressive levels of student debt and increasing privatization of the University) to happen at all.

Additionally, it is equally clear that the decision to employ campus police in riot gear, was, in this context, in and of itself, a complete and egregious violation of the UC Davis Principles of Community, the principles intended to promote free and effective discourse within the University.

As this principle of free and effective discourse is the essence of the University, its very reason for being, the seriousness of this institutional failure of judgment cannot be overestimated. Its implications go far beyond the mere need to investigate and evaluate the officials involved. The problem is systemic in its nature and scope. The solutions have to be equally as deep and broad.

Lest anyone believe that the University now "gets it," everyone should read the latest "apology" from Chancellor Katehi published Dec. 9 in The Huffington Post.

Note that the Chancellor says she looks "forward to potential recommendations [from the investigating commissions] on how we can better balance the need to preserve the peace while we also protect the right of dissent."

What, again, was the nature of the disturbance to "the peace" which led the University to believe riot police were needed in order to "restore the peace" on November 18? Wasn't the disturbance actually the fact that the students might be effectively publicizing a different message than the one the University wanted the public to hear -- the message that the University no longer "works for us," that the University is failing its students?

In The Huffington Post article the Chancellor is speaking for the University as a whole. She is exercising the institution's corporate right to free speech, choosing particular words to address crucial political issues that impact both the University and our entire society. She is attempting to restore the preferred corporate message: the University can still work for its students.

In this context, her choice -- the University's choice -- of the words "preserve the peace" fairly groans under the bulk and weight of all the covert, corporate, "law-'n-order" sand-baggage it carries.

Chancellor Katehi has maintained all along that she is not stepping down. Clearly the message she continues to deliver on behalf of the University has not changed. How, then, could it be sufficient to merely change the messenger? It is the entire University that needs to be changed.