Pepper Spray, Protests, Police, and Finals
People all over the world have seen video footage from November 18th, when a group of protesters here at UC Davis were sprayed in the face with pepper spray. Justified outrage flowed from all corners of the globe and multiple investigations are now underway. How could this happen? Why did it happen and who allowed it? These are questions that the investigations will hopefully help to answer. Since then, the drumbeat for Chancellor Katehi to resign intensified and now seems to have subsided a little – pending the investigation. Tents have taken up residence on the quad, as have port-a-potties, heat lamps, and electrical cords. In many ways, things are suddenly quite different in the UCD campus’ world.
I wasn’t here when the pepper spraying occurred. I was in New York City at church headquarters, and saw the headlines when my plane touched down in Sacramento late that night. I have students who were on the quad that afternoon and witnessed the incident. Several expressed great fear and alarm at what they saw. One has some EMT training and was furious to learn that the paramedics on the scene only had enough saline for four patients – not nearly enough to treat the number of students in need. She felt very helpless in the midst of much pain. While many students are united in the belief that the amount of force used was disproportinate to the level of treat posed to the police, I do have some students who feel the protestors had been warned repeatedly to move out of the way, and because they chose not to, they knew what the consequence would be. These differences of opinion are also reflected in the larger community.
At the big rally on the quad the following Monday, which was attended by thousands of students, faculty, staff, and throngs of media, students shared their experience of being pepper sprayed, and they repeatedly called upon Chancellor Katehi to resign. She took the stage and apologized for what happened. After she spoke the crowd visibly began to decrease. There was a shift in the mood on campus. While those deeply connected with the Occupy movement remain focused and resolute, it seems the the majority of students have adopted a different stance. Students in my ministry have stated that while they disagree with the pepper spraying, they no longer think the Chancellor should resign. Likewise, many of them deeply disagree with the protestors’ call to get rid of the police force on campus. Students want to feel safe, and having a police presence helps provide that.
So what is the role of a Christian ministry in all of this? First and foremost, I have been incredibly impressed by the students’ committment to protesting non-violently. I mean, part of what makes the video so disturbing is that the protestors are simply sitting on the ground with no way to defend themselves or to return the aggression. Likewise, Jesus chose the path of non-violence. He abhorred violence and as Christians we should too. He also made it a point to consistently challenge the status quo: to expose injustice and the oppressive social systems the benefited only those in power. This is part of why they killed him. So all of those aspects are good and right and praiseworthy. However, we also have an important role to play in fostering dialogue and opening avenues for those who disagree to try to come together. My colleague Kristin Stoneking has written powerfully on her decision to agree to help mediate between protestors and the administration. While her sympathies were certainly with the students, she modeled a way to ‘respect the dignity of every human being’ (as our baptismal covenant states), and in doing so to open a pathway for dialogue to happen.
But most of all, what our faith tradition has to offer in times like these is the ability to proceed without fear. For a tense few days, everyone was afraid: students were afraid, the police were afraid, the administration was afraid. And when people operate from a place of fear, oftentimes negative results follow. But if we can stand in our truth – in the reality that we are all children of God and that in the midst of terrible wrongs there is a path to repentance and forgiveness, then we can help to dial down those fears, and move toward reconciliation and justice. That is our ministry in this moment on this campus.
I’ve been asked repeatedly what’s going on right now on campus. Most students are wrapping up their finals. Some are still in the tents, or sitting in Dutton Hall, but by and large, most are ready to go home for break. I don’t know what next quarter holds, but I’m thankful that we can be here during this important time on campus.