Today, which is a Sunday, is usually my writing day.
This Sunday is no exception… But I am using it to write about something else.
I have just watched several videos of the police brutalizing peaceful protesters at the University of California: Davis campus. They stand in a clot, rolling on the back of their heels, casual but alert as students prepare for what they know is coming. The cops, as though in slow motion, ready their weapon of choice: Military-grade pepper spray, hot and searing and, at times, lethal. One stout fellow, who we later learn is Lieutenant John Pike, shakes his can, displaying it to the gathered students, who cluster on the ground, unmoving.
Then the madness. Pike, with astounding calm, steps over protesters and begins to shoot them directly in the face with his spray. The students begin to roll and scream, covering their faces, coughing and gagging. They are pushed to the ground, forced onto their stomachs, and are cuffed behind their backs with riot zip-ties.
But these are not rioters. These are students.
I was once a protester. I had just turned sixteen years old. I was doing it for the wrong reasons, with the wrong people, and at the wrong time, but I was there. Caught up in a movement I did not fully understand, I took a week-long leave from my beloved arts camp to go to something called Philly Freedom Summer, a protest against the Republican National Convention put on by the now-largely defunct group Refuse and Resist and their sister group, the “formerly” homophobic and paranoid Revolutionary Communist Party. I was part of a cadre of about fifteen men and women occupying one room of an apartment on the west side of Philadelphia, sleeping on the floor, and – at the urging of our group leaders – using an assumed name. We were cautioned to be careful of large trucks and vans because they could contain listening devices. Signs adorned the walls of our crash pad: “Pigs have ears.” FBI files were mentioned. I was terrified.
During my time there, in addition to being terrorized by the delusions of the group leaders (I doubt to this day that any of the cube trucks parked outside contained a single officer with a microphone) and listening to endless meetings, I had a choice to make: To participate in direct action – a type of peaceful protest that can often lead to police intervention – or not. After much agonizing, I stood down, content to shout slogans on the fringe. “The whole world is watching!” we screamed.
When all was said and done, most everyone came back unscathed. There was one woman who sustained an arm injury, so there was some discussion of what to do, but her situation was unique. I returned to camp with many stories but not a scratch on me.
I never returned to organized politics again – for various reasons, which are another story entirely – but recently felt the heat and pull of Occupy Wall Street as I stood on the sidelines a few nights ago. Microphones bleated out garbled messages to thousands of people assembled in and near Zuccotti Park. Police stood in throngs outside barricades. Signs waved and people cheered and cheered into the dark night.
Do I understand completely what the movement is about? No. Do I agree one hundred percent with what they are standing for, or think that there is a concrete statement they are making? Also no. But do I want them to be safe? Do I think they have a right to do what they are doing?
As the students writhe in pain on my computer screen, tears fall down my face. The cops step on a young man’s lower back. Batons fly. The Chancellor of UC Davis walks to her car in eerie silence, her path lined with students who do not speak a word. These are brave young men and women, far braver than I was then and I am now. They may not have a concrete handle on what they wish to accomplish, but who does? And does it matter?
Something needs to be done to stop this, and in my heart of hearts, I believe that it will.
Because, this time, the whole world is watching.
Police PEPPER SPRAY UC DAVIS STUDENT PROTESTERS (youTube video)
UC Davis Chancellor Katehi walks to her car (youTube video)
Assistant English Professor Nathan Brown’s open letter to Chancellor Katehi