As our country remains mired in economic doldrums, the act of public protest has returned to the front pages of newspapers across the country. The Occupy Wall Street movements have given voice to people who feel that the political process as it stands leaves their viewpoints marginalized and ignored.
While this movement defines itself and their agenda, as Americans we can all have our own opinions as to whether or not their concerns are valid. But there should be unanimous support of their right to stand in the public square and make their voices heard, as it is laid out in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. And this is why I am appalled at the response to student protestors at UC Davis and why I am demanding accountability from its leadership.
On November 18, Davis students rallied against budget cuts affecting the UC/CSU system. As State Senator I have also rallied and voted against these Draconian cuts to public education. Considering the profound effects these cuts have on students, including dramatic tuition increases, coupled with exorbitant pay hikes for UC’s top executives, many students felt that they needed to make their voices heard.
Chancellor Linda Katehi, when met with these protests, evidently felt that the proper response was to have UC Davis Police remove the protestors from the quad by force. Video of the consequences of that decision has been seen by millions, and are a sad mark on our public universities. I have yet to hear any reports of Davis students engaging in acts of violence; instead they seemed to hold true to the spirit of non-violent civil disobedience. To respond to students protesting tuition increases that could price them out of higher education by pepper spraying them seems gratuitous and unnecessary, and the decision to remove them forcibly appears premature and short-sighted.
UC Berkeley, my alma mater, is no stranger to political protest. One would hope that by now the institution would be better at dealing with them. Instead, on November 9 protestors found that the response to their message was police batons. Again, the administration of the University of California determined that the appropriate response to a non-violent protest was to make arrests and use force.
Numerous students were arrested and students and professors were beaten. In an oddly Orwellian moment, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau commended protestors the next day for “setting an example of peaceful protest and mobilization.” It is a shame he did not hold himself to as high a standard.
These incidents show a disturbing practice of shutting down legitimate political protest at our public universities. Both warrant full and comprehensive investigations of university policy so we can understand who is responsible for the violent overreaction, and it is vital that those investigations are conducted in the open and with full involvement of the student body. Furthermore, the UC system as a whole needs to reevaluate its policies regarding student protest.
Young people have always been a voice for change in societies around the world. It is simply a reality that young people will engage in protest when they feel they are being ignored, and this is a reality that the UC’s have to accept. If the answer to these protests continues to be police truncheons and pepper spray, then the integrity and reputation of these institutions will be permanently damaged and we will have betrayed our charge to protect the fundamental liberties that we are all entitled to.
Leland Yee is a member of the California State Senate. Senator Yee is also a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.