UC Davis peppered by Web outrage

calcala@sacbee.comNovember 20, 2011 

This image from a video shows a police officer using pepper spray on seated demonstrators at UC Davis on Friday. UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi on Saturday promised an independent inquiry.

THOMAS K. FOWLER — Associated Press

UC Davis officials found themselves under a barrage of Internet-driven outrage Saturday, after campus police officers pepper-sprayed protesters at an Occupy UC Davis encampment Friday.

Saturday evening, after holding a news conference to address intense nationwide media interest, UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi walked through a blocks-long gantlet of students, who stood silently as she passed to a waiting SUV. Katehi had stayed inside the building for more than two hours after the conference.

Earlier, the crowd of protesters, which grew to 300 or more, had waved signs and chanted "Resignation, Resignation" and "Take Responsibility." There were no police officers in sight and protesters dispersed shortly after the chancellor departed.

The board of the Davis Faculty Association, among others, has called for her resignation.

Katehi found herself in the line of fire after numerous videos of Friday's pepper-spraying went viral on the Internet.

The videos show police spraying a red mist along a line of passively resisting students who had linked arms as they sat on the ground. The police had ordered them to take down tents they had set up on the campus quad as part of a protest in sympathy with Occupy Wall Street and against UC fee hikes, among other things.

Ten protesters were arrested, including nine students, while about 200 people watched, many shooting video on cameras or cellphones that ended up on various websites. The crowd chanted "Shame on you" and other phrases as those arrested were carried off.

As public and media interest in the pepper-spraying grew Saturday, Katehi, who was supportive of the officers in a statement Friday, issued a statement expressing her "sadness for the events this past Friday" and vowing to have a task force review police actions in the protest.

Protesters and campus officials said they took calls from CNN News and "Good Morning America," as well as a host of local news outlets, leading campus officials to call a Saturday afternoon teleconference to brief the media.

At the conference, Katehi said the review would be by an outside body and that she refused to resign in the face of criticism.

"I don't think it's appropriate for me to resign at this moment," she said.

Katehi, campus Chief of Police Annette Spicuzza and Fred Wood, assistant chancellor for student affairs, attended the news conference. Katehi made a long statement and then the three took a few questions before concluding.

Katehi reiterated that under UC Davis policy, students "cannot set up equipment and set up an encampment and stay overnight," and said that "the intent was not to disperse the rally, the intent was to disperse the tents."

She also said she plans to address the campus Monday.

The campus protests are allied with the loosely organized Occupy Wall Street movement that challenges the current American economic structure, particularly income disparity. Earlier, students had occupied the Mrak Hall administration building but left Wednesday when requested.

Thursday, a group of students set up tents in the quad. Friday morning, they received notice from Katehi that they were required to remove the tents by 3 p.m.

Spicuzza said Friday that about 35 officers from UC Davis and other UC campuses as well as the city of Davis responded to the protest about 4 p.m., wearing protective gear.

Spicuzza said officers were forced to use pepper spray when students surrounded them. They used a sweeping motion on the group, per procedure, to avoid injury, she said.

"There was no way out of that circle," Spicuzza said Friday. "They were cutting the officers off from their support. It's a very volatile situation."

Videos of the incident drew strong reaction, and a national conversation on the incident was quickly joined. Some commenters were outraged by what they saw as needless violence, while others supported the police action.

Davis resident Bob Blaine, 25, was at Friday's scene and also outside the news conference Saturday. Speaking of the rapidly spreading videos, he said officials "just lit a huge fire in Davis."

Various postings on sacbee.com had more than 1,500 comments combined by Saturday evening. An online account at The Huffington Post website had more than 30,000 comments.

Many viewers took particular exception to Spicuzza's statement that police were forced to use pepper spray, saying the videos clearly show that officers were in no danger.

"The idea that they were surrounded or threatened is absurd," said Bob O'Connor, who contacted The Bee. "They were using pepper spray because they wanted the kids off the sidewalk."

"They moved in on us in full armor and didn't make any attempt to engage in dialogue," said Bernie Goldsmith, an attorney who was among the protesters Friday.

Lynne Wilson, a Seattle attorney who has written on the subject, said some court decisions have faulted police for using pepper on nonviolent protesters.

"When protesters are just passively resisting, pepper spray is not usually an option," she said.

However, officer safety is a major issue.

"Surrounding police officers is probably not a good idea," she said.

In one video, an officer, with students milling in the background holding cameras, methodically sprays the faces of students seated passively on the ground.

There may be more to it than that, suggested John McGinness, a former Sacramento County sheriff.

When students were told to leave, they had that option, he said.

"When you see the ultimate use of force, it's not pretty," he said. But pepper spray causes less harm to protesters and officers than other methods, McGinness said.

Occupy protests have been met with police force in several instances in California.

A veteran at an Occupy Oakland protest ended up with a cracked skull after police there advanced on an encampment last month.

Student protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, were jabbed by police with batons Nov. 9. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau first sided strongly with the police, but later released a statement calling video of the Nov. 9 incident "disturbing" and instructing the school's police review board to investigate the use of batons.

Despite the arrests and spray, protesters do not seem deterred. Feelings were running high among those who gathered Saturday night outside Katehi's teleconference.

"It was a pretty powerful moment," said senior Kevin Dunn, 21, from Dana Point, of Katehi's walk through the silent protesters. "This showed the world our peaceful protest and our resolve."

Many expressed their concern about Friday's incident.

"It was really sad," said Javier De Leon, a 27-year-old junior from Orange County. "I was scared that it could happen at UC Davis, which is known as a forward and progressive school."

Some of the protesters involved on Friday told The Bee they plan to return to the campus Monday.

"The significant part was that we were able to nonviolently nudge them (police) off the quad," said Chris Wong, a senior and an Occupy activist on campus and with Occupy Davis, a separate movement in the city of Davis.

He expects Monday to bring more students and more police to the quad.

"It's going to be very tense," he predicted.

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