Students today at public universities like the University of California and the California State University systems have significant reason to feel insulted. In just the past decade tuition has more than doubled at UC and nearly tripled at the Cal State system. They have to listen to lectures from people like me who went to UC for almost nothing and have had, in many cases, great opportunities to pursue our ambitions and passions, while they face the prospect of graduating with tens of thousands in debt into a job market that is likely to be stagnated for years.
Mobilized by the nationwide "Occupy Wall Street" movement, and with perfect reason (noting the relationship between government for the 1% and the long term strangulation of public higher education) students at several UCs have undertaken non-violent occupations in settings, like Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, that pose no significant burden to ordinary University activities. But rather than finding that University administrations have their back, students, and those faculty and staff protesting with them have been violently set upon by police.
The week before last it was the Berkeley campus, where police used batons on non-violent demonstrators linking arms around a tent encampment (videos and reporting from Bay Citizen here). Yesterday it was UC Davis, where videos clearly show police calmly pepper spraying passive sitting students preparatory to arresting them (NYTimes coverage here).
The Chancellors at both universities have called for investigations, but the real question is why police were ever deployed to clear these assemblies at all. Since 9/11 campuses have begun to define even non-violent protest and civil disobedience as an unacceptable threat to security the prevention of which warrants the ready use of police violence. Videos show a policing approach in which casual use of chemical weapons, non-lethal guns that look like automatic weapons (but shoot cotton pellets), and batons. In the absence of reasonable suspicion of violence, non-lethal offensive police weapons should not be brought to or displayed at peaceful campus protests. They serve only to chill speech, provoke panic, and become a moral hazard in favor of violence. Using police force to clear peaceful campus protests should be a last resort only when negotiations and passive measures have failed to restore vital university functions.
The focus of investigations should not just be on individual police misconduct but on misguided university administration policies that have treated their own students as an intolerable threat to university security. More than even the tuition increases these policies raise the question of whose benefit these universities are operating for.