Looking at this video makes me wanna holler.
College students peacefully occupy a public space. Policemen ordered in by the university chancellor demand they leave. Students remain where they are, linking arms and bowing their heads. A policeman whips out a can of pepper spray and then marches down the line of huddled, bowed, protestors, raining bright burning orange on their heads, with the deliberateness of a man spray-painting a fence. Soon, a young woman begins to shout, desperately, “Does anyone have some water? Does anyone have some water?”
And in the same news cycle, we hear of Egyptian pro-democracy protestors being gassed with American-made tear gas.
As an educated white American who repeatedly gives thanks for the privilege of being born as such, in this country among so many other options, and who reveres its Constitution, and who cheers each time another sickening dictator falls, I am struggling with such feelings of sickness, bewilderment, and anger right now. Who are we to applaud “the spread of democracy” in the Middle East and then apply their dictators’ tactics to American citizens peacefully exercising their rights at home? That this decision was made by the UC governance system does not really make that much of a difference as it might initially seem, because, as Glenn Greenwald writes, it is a local symptom of a very worrying psychological attitude we as Americans are allowing to infect us at a number of levels: that the armed maintenance of “order” is the ultimate right, and the ultimate good, not only in actual situations of war, danger, and criminality but in any situation that threatens “order” as anyone in power finds convenient to read it at the time. Going along with this means that we cede our Constitutional rights little by little, without even realizing it. And that we contribute to the kind of world in which this can be done to kids trying to learn for themselves what being a peaceful, responsible citizen of a democracy is like.
I am a college professor who tries to encourage students of all backgrounds and political persuasions to do that thing most necessary for all citizens of a democracy – to develop their consciences and their minds, to use their voices and their hearts, to braid outrage and compassion and action to, as Gandhi said, become the change they wish to see in the world. Several of my own students took part in the third “Occupy Decorah” protest yesterday, because they were curious to see what it was about. I think about policemen doing what policemen did to those UC Davis students – not just pepper-spraying them from above but tearing away the clothing they tried to use as shields and hunkering down and spraying the chemical down their throats, knocking them down and beating them — and I feel such sadness and such rage. How dare they. How dare they do this to peaceful students. How dare they.
Anyone can agree: this is an outrage.
The Republican former governor of Louisiana, Buddy Roemer, still a Presidential candidate in a field that unfortunately seems to have no room for him, has spoken favorably about the Occupy movement from the perspective of what can only be called common American decency. “It comes from being 68 years old and loving America,” he said when asked about his statements. “It comes from a guy who all of his life has read about economic history and fair play. It comes from a guy who watched a different generation of young people stand up to a war in Vietnam that was not right and got us out of there. It comes from watching young people who haven’t matured in all of their thoughts, who can change their mind, but who ask questions about the status quo. And I live in an America where these questions need to be asked.” (I’d be very interested to see a race with Roemer as independent. Anyone?) On MSNBC lately, he’s reiterated this note, saying that the protestors have been called un-American but they are Americans, doing what Americans should do: asking questions, making change, as they did during the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam. It warms my heart more than I can say to hear these words in a Southern accent. And it reinforces what my heart is telling me: listening honestly to what OWS is about, objecting to police crackdowns and pepper sprays, is common decency and common sense, no matter what your party is, no matter whether or not you agree with everything all the protestors say.
Watch the video and you can see the police retreating, to the shouts of students: “Shame on you! Shame on you!” The students retained their nonviolence to the end, but used their voices to name the situation accurately. Shame. Shame.
Sign a petition here to stand with the students of UC Davis and to read a wonderful letter from a professor who has followed his heart and his conscience into speaking out for his students. And keep talking, keep asking questions, keep voting with your voice and your presence for the America you want, and the America in which you believe.