Chris Wong saw it unfold just hours before millions saw it on the internet: A police officer dousing students with pepper spray, a scene recorded with smart phones and turned into a viral web video that has brought national attention and energized the Occupy movement on college campuses.
Wong, a senior at the University of California (UC) Davis, was on the outskirts of the human chain formed by students who has set up tents on the campus quad in protest of state tuition hikes. Watching his peers sprayed at point blank range with the chemical gas was harrowing, he said, but broadcasting web video of the incident could be a boon for the movement, which has connections to the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests.
“In a strange way, [the police] did us a big favor,” said Wong, whose face was dotted with pepper spray, while students forming the human chain “looked like their faces had been painted.” “It’s good for waking people up to what’s happening on the ground. … Some people choose to ignore it and say it won’t accomplish anything, but we’ve seen an exponential surge in support [since the video went viral]. It served as a good platform for us.”
Read more about the Occupy movement in higher education…
Protesters “occupied” the UC-Davis public area in part to protest tuition that has almost doubled for students in the UC system since the mid-2000s and heavy handed police tactics used on nonviolent protesters at UC Berkeley this month. Video of Berkeley students being beaten with police batons was also viewed by millions on the internet.
“The police made our case for us,” Wong said. “We exposed the true nature of the administration as far as their willingness to deal with student grievances.”
Eleven students received medical treatment on site, according to campus reports, and two protesters were taken to a local hospital.
There are many YouTube videos depicting the police officer pepper spraying the protesters. One video has 1.3 million views, another has been watched by almost 1.5 million, while a handful of other videos have between 300,000 and 500,000 views.
UC-Davis faculty members have written scathing letters to university administrators, including Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, who placed Police Chief Annette Spicuzza on administrative Nov. 21, three days after the pepper spray video was posted to YouTube. Two police officers were suspended after the video was posted to YouTube.
The board of the Davis Faculty Association released a petition calling for Kaheti’s resignation just hours after the camera phone video became public.
In a letter, board members called the police actions “unprovoked, disproportional, and excessive,” adding that “police brutality damages the university’s public image, and, more importantly, it damages the climate for free expression at UC.”
“The Chancellor’s role is to enable open and free inquiry, not to suppress it,” the board wrote in its open letter.
Bob Ostertag, a UC Davis professor of technocultural studies, wrote in a Nov. 19 blog post that campus police used tactics not permitted by guards in federal prisons.
“Even in the case of a prison riot in which inmates use extreme violence, once a prisoner sits down he or she is not considered to be an imminent threat,” Ostertag wrote in a blog on The Huffington Post. “And if prison guards go into a situation where the use of pepper spray is considered likely, they are required to have medical personnel nearby to treat the victims of the chemical agent.”
Ostertag continued: “Apparently, in the state of California felons incarcerated for violent crimes have rights that students at public universities do not.”
The ubiquity of web-connected smart phones with high-quality cameras has become an essential tool for Occupy protesters from the movement’s origins on Wall Street to its offshoots more than 3,000 miles away on the UC-Davis campus, said Brian Stewart, journalism network associate for Campus Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C.
As of press time, several conservative organizations on college campuses did not return eMails and voice messages left by eCampus News reporters.
“So many people have smart phones now, it’s becoming increasingly easy to document exactly what’s happening, and it has that viral effect,” he said. “And that has been at the center of the Occupy movement — bringing those visuals to a much larger audience on the internet. … [YouTube video] has definitely been a key component in gaining attention.”
Wong said what wasn’t in the YouTube video probably was as important as what was shown in the eight-minute clip.
Students encircling the human chain and the police officers dressed in riot gear and wielding pellet guns squelched a couple attempts to provoke the officers with denigrating chants, Wong said. Such a chant, he said, would have made the viral video far less effective in drawing public sympathy and support.
“Any type of reaction should be nonviolent – we made sure of that,” he said. “It speaks more to your character when we don’t use more radical or violent approaches. Students felt, symbolically, like it was a win.”
Internet videos like the one from UC Davis have drawn strong rebuke from students’ parents and university alums. A group known as Occupy Alumni has launched Facebook and Twitter accounts in recent days, and student activists believe excessive force publicized via viral video could trigger an alumni backlash.
“It spoke to the parents and alumni and other students that this is getting out of hand,” said Natalia Abrams, a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) alum who has helped facilitate local Occupy Colleges groups. “I’m horrified that any of my alumni dollars were used in that way.”
Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park took footage of midnight police raids last week, but much of the video posted on the internet is shaky and largely unclear
Stewart said the clarity of the UC-Davis video made the clip all the more effective.
“It’s a somber scene there before the police officers start to take action,” he said. “This one was unique in that it wasn’t chaotic, like some videos are. You could tell exactly what was happening.”
Protesters and police officers an share blame for publicized clashes in some YouTube videos posted by occupiers, Abrams said, but the UC-Davis footage provided a rare uninterrupted view of police actions taken against students.
“In chaotic videos, it’s hard to see which side is being aggressive and which side is not,” she said. “It’s very easy in those [UC-Davis] videos to see who the aggressors were.”
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