by Scott Herring
Not a month has passed, and yet I have had enough Pepper Spray Incident to last a lifetime. In case you have been hanging out with the Coneheads on the planet Remulak, and have not heard the news, on November 18, campus police officers pepper-sprayed a line of student protesters who had been occupying the Quad at the University of California, Davis, in a small, very small-scale imitation of Occupy Wall Street. The protesters had been asked and finally ordered to remove themselves, the orders ultimately issuing from the University Chancellor, Linda Katehi.
After refusing numerous requests by campus police, they got doused with pepper spray, an event captured on multiple videos. Good, durable copies are at PJ Media, where Bill Whittle and Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds cast a more jaundiced eye on this tearjerker. Another video, by the College Republicans, similarly offers an alternative to the meta-narrative (in an Accuracy in Media article here).
My office is not a hundred yards from the place where this happened, and since that day, since that hour, I have been living on a nonstop diet of pepper. The publicity has been intense and international. I did not see the infamous act of abuse of the Kids, but with all the talk, and my proximity to the political side of what followed, the winds blew pepper into my head, where it has lodged too long.
Now that finals week has passed and our more low-key, sensible students—which is to say, nearly all of them—have gone home for the holidays, we can draw some conclusions from this bizarre outburst.
The most amusing figure in the affair was Chancellor Katehi, our Profile in Courage. I do not have access to her thinking—I do not rank that high—but I suspect that, given her status as a woman with an ethnically-confusing last name (it sounds Muslim, but she is actually Greek), she believed that a PC force-field surrounded her that was so powerful she would be immune to criticism. Her greatest mistake may not have been the decision to clear the protestors, but rather in her explanation.
Almost immediately after the Incident, all faculty received a mass email from her, in which she blithely explained that she had ordered the Quad cleared in the name of student “health and safety.” In this, she was betrayed once more by that fickle god, Political Correctness.
Like any Northern California university town, we have our resident population of homeless schizophrenics, alcoholics, and addicts. By a long-standing compromise, they are tolerated in town, but not on campus. Again, I was not privy to the decision, but I suspect Katehi looked at the degeneracy surrounding Occupy Wall Street, the violence, the public defecation, the infiltration by street people, and pictured the same thing happening on our Quad. If avoiding that scene was her motive, then I sympathize. According to the Queensbury Rules of Political Correctness, however, she could not openly say, “I had to do this to keep the bums and lunatics off campus.” When they saw the phrase “health and safety,” however, the irony alone drove an otherwise mild-mannered faculty berserk. The campus is still, as I write this, covered with flyers demanding her resignation. She has been on a nonstop apology tour ever since.
If she was the most amusing figure, the “political activists” have followed close behind. All the actual victims are clearly visible in the video, and they are not numerous. It’s pepper spray, not plutonium, and the active ingredient is capsaicin. Like anyone who hangs out in Yellowstone, I have fired the contents of maximum-force pepper spray for practice, and have been accidentally gassed, as have most of my friends. It’s an awful experience, but it is brief and the effects are not permanent. But don’t tell that to the activists.
The instant Chancellor Katehi’s half-hearted explanation hit our faculty mailing lists, every list on campus lit up. The rhetoric was not sedate. One English professor (no surprise) called repeatedly for “the overthrow of capitalism.” Amid the shrieking about “torture” and “horror” and “a new police state,” I caught another, not so appealing strain from the vast majority that did not get sprayed. They were having the time of their lives.
Activists like to imagine themselves as Christ on the cross, even as they expect to not be inconvenienced, indeed to be rewarded for their “bravery” by the very same power figures at whom they are hurling invective. Now, for the first and last time in the activists’ lives, the Romans had finally bothered to show up for the crucifixion.
But they were funny Romans, were they not? The Legio X Fretensis, the one that garrisoned Judea when Jesus lived there, would have locked shields and had everyone’s head off in a couple of minutes. These Romans attacked with what amounted to Del Taco Hot. But you take what you can get, and the uninjured, unaffected majority have reacted with a barely-concealed and unbecoming glee. They are like Dennis the anarcho-syndicalist in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who, when roughed up by King Arthur, can hardly believe his good luck. It is the first time he has even been actually outright oppressed.
The night after the great gassing, November 19, I walked through the Quad. The intent had been to clear what was at first a tiny gathering. It had not worked out so well: I counted 102 tents, with more arriving. I expected the Thanksgiving break to kill this thing. I was wrong. People in the rest of the country look at our temperatures and think of them as mild, but sleeping on the ground in our tule fog, as the temperature slips toward freezing and the TV trucks are far away (there had once been 15 or 20 of them), morale slips.
Tonight, the 10th of December, having turned in my final grades, I took another tour. I counted 43 tents still on the quad. Our main administration building, Mrak Hall, is now the Chancellor’s Fortress of Solitude. The doors are all locked, and I was stopped by an undergraduate employee at the entrance and only admitted when I produced a faculty ID. “We need to keep the protestors out,” the painfully polite undergraduate guard explained, admitting also that the Chancellor was somewhere upstairs.
I headed back to one of our secondary administration buildings, Dutton Hall, where the first floor (again, such strange Romans) had been given over to the protestors, who were sleeping on the first floor, in tents or on whatever. Signs out front proclaimed this to be Paulo Freire University, after the Brazilian Marxist much loved by graduate students in the humanities, who adore the delicious racial guilt he dishes out.
And the Romans have provided the remaining protesters on the Quad with big blue Porta-Potties.
Scott Herring teaches writing and literature at the University of California, Davis. Before he got his Ph.D., he worked for years in Yellowstone National Park, and still carries on a hopeless love affair with the place. In the photograph, he’s hanging from a cliff therein.