UC Davis chaplain offers insight into pepper spray incident

Thanks to my cousin, Leslie (clutter museum.com), for her collection of links to a variety of news and comments from the recent pepper spray incident at the University of California Davis campus.

I was especially struck by the observations of Kristin Stoneking, campus chaplain, who was asked to assist the chancellor, who reported being trapped by protesting students in an administrative building.

She reports that it soon became clear that the students had promised a peaceful exit, but administrators were were afraid to accept the offer.

In a post on her own blog, Stoneking comments on the eventual peaceful resolution, as students moved to the side and sat in silence as the Chancellor walked to her car.

What was clear to me was that once again, the students’ willingness to show restraint kept us from spiraling into a cycle of violence upon violence. There was no credible threat to the Chancellor, only a perceived one. The situation was not hostile. And what was also clear to me is that whether they admit it or not, the administrators that were inside the building are afraid. And exhausted. And human. And the suffering that has been inflicted is real. The pain present as the three of us watched the video of students being pepper sprayed was palpable. A society is only truly free when all persons take responsibility for their actions; it is only upon taking responsibility that healing can come.

Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car? Because I believe in the humanity of all persons. Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid. Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek. I am well aware that my actions were looked on with suspicion by some tonight, but I trust that those seeking a nonviolent solution will know that “just means lead to just ends” and my actions offered dignity not harm.

The Chancellor was not trapped in Surge II tonight, but, in a larger sense, we are all in danger of being trapped. We are trapped when we assent to a culture that for decades, and particularly since 9/11, has allowed law enforcement to have more and more power which has moved us into an era of hypercriminalization. We are trapped when we envision no path to reconciliation. And we are trapped when we forget our own power. The students at UC Davis are to be commended for resisting that entrapment, using their own power nonviolently. I pray that the Chancellor will remember her own considerable power in making change on our campus, and in seeking healing and reconciliation.

She seems to speak to our own community’s recent “investment” in excessive amounts of crowd control weaponry, driven apparently by unspecified fears among the supposed powerful and the extreme and unwarranted deference to “law enforcement” definitions of the situation.

It makes for an interesting challenge for us to meet as a community.

10 responses to “UC Davis chaplain offers insight into pepper spray incident

  1. This is the chancellor responsible for the campus cop who casually strolled along a line of students, sitting on the ground peacefully, and pepper-sprayed the lot. The picture of the incident is now notorious.

    She deserves to be summarily fired, and every one of those students should sue the crap out of her.

  2. “And what was also clear to me is that whether they admit it or not, the administrators that were inside the building are afraid. And exhausted. And human.”

    Important words for us to remember when hollering from the bleachers. Just because you become a chancellor or a CEO or a President doesn’t mean that you gain superhuman stamina and Solomonic judgment (usually achieving any of those positions just means that you are good at political maneuvering).

    This doesn’t excuse poor decision making, but I do think that we should acknowledge that good people sometimes make poor decisions when they are tired, afraid, and rushed.

    …which is also the primary reason why I think that people who criticize Presidential vacations are unbelievably stupid. I want the President of the United States to be the most rested and clear-thinking individual in the country.

    Also, I don’t recall if there was any discussion of the Penn St. situation here, but I do think that the Board there showed exceptional backbone in firing Paterno with immediate effect instead of letting him coach another game.

  3. On the issue of law enforcement crowd control weaponry, I do think that there is a tricky line to walk. Once gatherings reach a certain critical mass, they become impossible to control without tear gas, water cannon, etc. It’s fair to ask and debate what we expect of our police force here locally. If 100 people gather for what begins as a peaceful protest but turns violent for some reason, do we expect HPD to be able to restore order quickly? What about 1,000 or 10,000? Are we okay with these things being out of HPD’s ability to control? If the answer is yes, we choose to not purchase large amounts of crowd control weaponry because we don’t anticipate the need to dispel a riot of 1,000 people, then let that be a real decision and not have people string up HPD for incompetence and unpreparedness afterwards.

    I mentioned the Penn St. situation in the previous post. The riot that occurred after Paterno’s firing was spontaneous and destructive. What about the Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot, where 150 people received hospital treatment as a result of the anarchy? These things really happen, and just because one idiot on the UC Davis campus pepper sprayed people sitting on the sidewalk doesn’t mean we should tie the hands of law enforcement everywhere.

    • Honolulu has acquired a vast amount of armament. Will they dump them off Waianae? Or use them? Ad if so, on whom?

    • @WooWoo,

      Like you, I worry about dynamics which spin out of control. Fortunately, we did not see much of that this time. According to Civil Beat, HPD purchased:

      “Twenty-five-thousand pepper spray projectiles for nearly $90,000. Eighteen-thousand units of bean bag ammunition for more than $60,000. Three-thousand Taser cartridges for another $60,000.”

      This strongly suggests HPD was in the grip of a paranoid dynamic. Because of my ties with elected and administration officials, as well as with activists, I was sometimes in discussions with people involved in planning for APEC. Their contingency plans included as an outlier possibility, a mass demonstration of 5,000 anti-APEC demonstrators.

      When they told me this, I was uncertain how to respond. I didn’t want to serve as a police informant, but nonetheless, I told them there was NO WAY there would be demonstrations that large.

      But even for a demonstration of 5,000, how does that justify so many armaments? Out of a crowd of 5,000 demonstrators, you might get a small minority of “Black Bloc wannabees,” who, emboldened by the crowd, might get swept away with revolutionary, streetfighting, “to the barricades” delusions. There are dangerous dynamics capable of erupting on both sides. But how much fire power is needed to limit their damage?

      And why, praytell, was so much repressive materiel BOUGHT? The Feds had a big role in all this. Why couldn’t they have shipped in pallets of the stuff and hold it in standby in some undisclosed location, then shipping it on to the next place when it was not needed?

      Part of the answer to that is that there are mercenary incentives in the police repression industry, somewhat similar to those embodied in the military-industrial complex. By exaggerating the boogeyman threat of the “anarchist hordes,” some well-connected security firms make billions of dollars. I expect quite a fortune was created in a very few hands over the past few months through the sales of repressive hardware, software and consulting.

      Now that HPD has these “toys” in their possession, there is a risk another destructive dynamic might kick in. Just the use of pepper spray is in danger of being “normalized,” the presence of so many tasers and other gadgets lying around unused will undoubtedly tempt some officers to put them to use.

      There needs to be a widespread, nationwide pushback against he increased militarization of the police forces. How can they don those RoboCop, Darth Vader-esque riot police suits of armor WITHOUT knowing they are being tempted to join “the Dark Side” explicitly celebrated by misanthropes like Dick Cheney.

      There are dynamics within monopoly capitalism which tends towards embracing features of fascism, especially during times of social unrest. We have to innoculate our spirit against given into those temptations.

  4. I may be naive, or possibly it could be just optimistic, but I strongly believe that the occupy movement will succeed — as long as it remains non-violent.

    I’m not talking about a few rotten eggs in the crowd, the rare exceptions and, likely agent provocateurs that will try to vandalize or otherwise give the movement a black eye – like at most any crowd or mass gathering.

    Also, as pointed out by Paul Krugman and others, it’s really closer to a 99.9% movement than a mere 99% one.

    Further, it has already succeeded in changing the dialog from a bogus national debt/ federal deficit mania to the larger, more immediate problems like unemployment, housing foreclosures, student debt, the undue and unjust influence of the rich and corporations on our elected officials, etc.

    …and, come to think about it this is a process that after all is just beginning.

  5. Months ago, I raised these issues at a City Council Committee on Safety, Economic Development & Government Affairs meeting discussions on APEC.

    I was assured that: 1) this is Hawai`i and nothing like what happened in other cities/countries around the world would ever happen here; 2) the cost to bring “outsiders” to Hawai`i would deter large numbers from coming here to beef up local demonstrators; 3) local taxpayeer would not be picking up the costs because outside security forces such as Homeland Security and other federal security services would; 4) anything left over would be given to HPD, the National Guard, and perhaps even the Department of Public Safety so that they could save money bynot having to buy the the supplies & equipment.

    Wow! At first there was just the ACLU and myself raising our concerns, but quickly a couple of Councilmembers and folks from the public began to speak up.

    These concerns were acknowledged but ignored because of $$$$ matters.

    What do you think of their rationale for accepting the funds/equipment/supplies?

  6. There is an old saying, don’t know the source, may not be one… “The guilty flee when no one pursueth.” Here the guilty [minded] hide.

  7. Thanks for sharing the wise and humane insights of the chaplain. These unusual circumstances test each of us and she definitely rose to the occasion.

    I had expected the Occupy demonstrators to default to the stereotyped “street fighting” tactics in response to the violence they have suffered at the hands of the police. But they have themselves “risen to the occasion” and demonstrated great maturity and discipline.

    The glaring exception was the outbreak of property violence committed by the Black Bloc splinter group in Oakland. But that was “the exception which proves the Rule.” A fair assessment of actions all across the country shows that almost all the “violence” has come from the police.

    The corporate media almost universally defaults to the passive voice when speaking of the violence, as if it just happens on its own and they are unable (unwilling?) to assign responsibility or even report fairly the sequence of events. I saw a picture of a demonstrator being clubbed, along with a caption “explaining” that the demonstration “drew a response” from the police.

    Kinda like when we were kids throwing a ball in the house and the lamp “got broken.”

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