Context Changes Everything in UC Davis Pepper Spraying

by Kyle Huwa - SFPA Contributor on December 7, 2011

A full length video of the situation leading up to the now famous pepper spraying incident at UC Davis has now been released. The original video caused a tremendous uproar among viewers, who only saw the police pepper spraying the students, seemingly without provocation. But after watching the events precipitating the use of pepper spray, the whole scene makes much more sense.

The police were surrounded by “peaceful” protestors as they tried to remove students who they had arrested presumably for erecting tents on the quad. They told the students what part of the penal code they were violating Protestors heckled the cops and prevented them from leaving by sitting down across the pathway and surrounding them. After the police urged several times for the students to allow them to access their squad cars, pepper spray was used as a last resort. Watch the video for yourself:

Once the police had finally broken through the students, the peaceful protestors started ironically chanting: “We’re giving you a moment of peace,” to finally let the police officers leave. Unfortunately, I worry that many who watch this video will still find the police at fault for brutality. I think this video indicates that the police were acting in the line of duty, not in an inappropriate, brutal manner. One can argue that they could have done things differently, but I believe that calling this act brutality may be going too far.

The officers were charged with enforcing the penal code, which required them to remove the tents set up on public property. One can certainly disagree with this code to the extent that he or she would engage in civil disobedience. But the idea behind civil disobedience is the civility of it. While the protestors in the video may not have physically harmed the police officers, they were physically impeding the police officers from both moving to safety and also from carrying out the rule of law and protecting other students on campus.

If anything, the police seemed like they wanted to avoid physical confrontation at all costs. The use of pepper spray was an attempt to avoid direct physical confrontation with the students, after the world watched what happened at UC Berkeley. As much as I dislike seeing anyone getting pepper sprayed, I also dislike seeing police officers threatened and law and order trampled on in a potentially dangerous way.

Admittedly, situations of police brutality all require a case-by-case study, and it would have been inappropriate for anyone to really make a judgement on the UC Davis case until watching the above video. Even with the video, not all of the interactions and angles can be seen. This simply indicates that one should hesitate to immediately blame the police.

Freedom of speech is tremendously important, but the first amendment does not give one the right to set up tents on government property and then surround non-violent police officers and threaten them if they try to leave.

Update: The original video posted was not made by the UC Davis College Republicans. Their video can be found at this link: Occupy Protesters Blockade UC Davis Police

Kyle Huwa is the editor of the Stanford Review. He is a contributor to The College Fix.

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