With great sadness I watched peacefully protesting students being coated with pepper spray on the quad of the University of California at Davis, my alma mater. Fond memories of biking through the leafy campus clashed with the video pictures. The image of UC Davis may forever be etched in the public consciousness as the college where the cops sprayed the students.
As an alumnus, I understand the need of UCD’s administration to maintain order and public safety.
As a retired park ranger and peace officer, I understand the desire of the campus police force to follow orders, exact compliance and maintain an exit strategy.
As a mother of two twenty-something young men (one a UC graduate) searching for their places in the world, I understand the students’ frustration over steadily rising tuition fees, a sagging job market, and dimming hopes for their futures.
And I had just re-watched the film Gandhi the night before.
What, exactly, was the problem, anyway? UCD administrators had ordered the UCD police to remove about 25 tents and a cooking area from the campus quad. Why was this so important?
We’ve heard it all before from other “Occupy” encampments — issues of sanitation, blocking businesses and traffic flow, killing grass and trees, trash, etc.
But it is really all about authority and power.
“Occupation” is something out of the ordinary. It makes some people uncomfortable. It gets on the local news. It brings a visual, visceral discontent out in the open for all to see. It protests a small number of people having money, power — and authority. When peaceful students are pepper sprayed, batons are drawn, people are dragged away under arrest — the protest is spectacularly validated and inflamed.
What if UCD had simply put up some portable toilets, roped off the big trees and flower beds, and respectfully let the students have their say? Limited public funds can be used for toilets and trash pickup as well as police overtime and jail processing.
Perhaps small bits of our common lands should serve as stages for free speech and non-violent protest. Many people are feeling disenfranchised, frustrated and angry. The “occupy” movement has given a voice and a place to this frustration. A venue to vent, to exchange ideas, to look for a better way — it helps us all in the end. Litter can be collected, grass can be re-seeded, sewage can be pumped. But frustration and discontent will not go away when the tents come down.
Gandhi understood this as India struggled against the British Empire.
Remember how that one came out.
UCD BS 1975 Environmental Planning and Management