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2011-11-21

UC Davis Student Describes Pepper Spray Attack on Occupy Campus Protesters

Guests

Elli Pearson, a sophomore at University of California, Davis, studying sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Nathan Brown, assistant professor of English at University of California, Davis.

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A video that spread rapidly online shows University of California, Davis, campus police officers pepper-spraying student protesters at close range on Friday at point-blank range as they sat together to protest the dismantling of the "Occupy UC Davis" encampment. The two officers involved in the incident were placed on administrative leave, and the incident has sparked calls for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who initially defended the actions of the campus police. Katehi has since said she wants an outside, independent panel to review what happened. We speak with Elli Pearson, one of the students pepper-sprayed on Friday. "All I could see was people telling me to cover my head, protect myself, and put my head down. And the next thing I know, I was pepper-sprayed," says Pearson, who notes she was protesting in solidarity with students at UC Berkeley who were beaten by police and against tuition hikes at universities across the country. We also talk to Nathan Brown, assistant professor of English at UC Davis, who wrote an open letter calling for the resignation of Chancellor Katehi following the pepper-spraying incident Friday. "In my opinion, the best way to go about these things as a junior faculty member is to speak up openly," says Brown, who is not tenured. "In that way, you draw a lot of support. And that, I think, will be very helpful in protecting me and protecting other people who speak out, if there’s any effort of retribution by the administration." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the Occupy movements and the increasingly brutal police response around the country. At the University of California, Davis, campus on Friday, campus police officers used pepper spray against student protesters. Videos of the incident have spread rapidly on the internet. The footage shows two police officers firing pepper spray at point-blank range on a group of students sitting together in the quad to protest the dismantling of the Occupy UC Davis encampment. The students were peacefully sitting down crosslegged with their arms locked, when the officers began pepper-spraying them at close range, as people around them shout, "Don’t shoot students!"

PROTESTERS: Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students!

AMY GOODMAN: The University of California, Davis, has announced it’s placed two police officers on administrative paid leave after pepper-spraying the group of student protesters. The incident has sparked calls for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who initially defended the actions of campus police. Katehi has since said she wants an outside, independent panel to review what happened. In a written statement Saturday, she said, quote, "The use of pepper spray as shown on the video is chilling to us all and raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this. To this effect, I am forming a task force made of faculty, students and staff to review the events and provide to me a thorough report within 90 days," she wrote.

On Saturday, following Katehi’s brief press conference, students began to surround the building in protest. When Katehi eventually emerged to leave, she walked past a group of students nearly three blocks long, who, in a coordinated effort, remained completely silent. And for our radio listeners, you can go to our website to see the silent walk of the chancellor.

To talk more about what happened at UC Davis, we go to Sacramento, California, to talk to Elli Pearson, one of the students pepper-sprayed Friday. She’s a sophomore at UC Davis studying sustainable agriculture and food systems.

We’re also joined from Berkeley by Nathan Brown, assistant professor of English at UC Davis. He wrote an open letter calling for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi following the pepper-spraying incident Friday.

Before we turn to our guests, let me just play a short clip, which shows Elli Pearson being pepper-sprayed.

PROTESTERS: Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students! Don’t shoot students!

The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!

Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Elli Pearson. Elli, describe exactly what happened on Friday.

ELLI PEARSON: Well, we were protesting together, and the riot cops came at us, and we linked arms and sat down peacefully to protest their presence on our campus. And at one point, they were—we had encircled them, and they were trying to leave, and they were trying to clear a path. And so, we sat down, linked arms, and said that if they wanted to clear the path, they would have to go through us. But we were on the ground, you know, heads down. And all I could see was people telling me to cover my head, protect myself, and put my head down. And the next thing I know, I was pepper-sprayed.

AMY GOODMAN: You were in the white jacket?

ELLI PEARSON: Yes, I was.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did the pepper-spraying feel like?

ELLI PEARSON: Well, I couldn’t see anything. And so, if I—you know, I felt like pepper spray go over my body, and then I started choking on the fumes. And I lifted my head at one point, and one of the protesters had come to kind of protect our huddle of people, and he just told me to keep my head down. And then, from that point on, all I could hear was screaming around me and people being jostled.

AMY GOODMAN: Two people, two of the students, were taken to the hospital?

ELLI PEARSON: Yes, it was actually three students.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you there? Why were you protesting?

ELLI PEARSON: Well, I mean, one, I was standing in solidarity with students at UC—or at UC Berkeley who were beaten by police. Two, I’m protesting the tuition hikes that are happening on campuses, public universities really all over the nation. And three, I was standing in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Did the police say, "We’re about to pepper-spray you"?

ELLI PEARSON: I believe they told maybe one student, or like had some dialogue, but certainly not everyone could hear. It wasn’t like an announcement that was made. And we weren’t aware that we were going to be—I wasn’t aware I was going to be pepper-sprayed until people told me to protect myself. And then I have friends who were pepper-sprayed who said they did not know that that was happening and that that was coming. And we were actually expected—we were expecting to be shot in the back with something, because they were behind us. And we really had no idea what was going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Brown, you’re an assistant professor of English at UC Davis. You’re not tenured, so your job is certainly vulnerable. Yet you wrote an open letter calling for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi following the pepper-spraying of Elli and other students. What are you calling for? What is this open letter?

NATHAN BROWN: The open letter calls directly for the immediate resignation of the chancellor. There are also now efforts on the Davis campus, spearheaded by the board of the UC Davis Faculty Association, as well as others, to institute policies which will prevent the forcible removal of student protesters from the campus by police.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you calling for Katehi, the UC Davis chancellor’s resignation?

NATHAN BROWN: Because what we’ve been seeing for two years on various UC campuses is that senior UC administrators basically use police brutality as a systematic tool to terrorize student and faculty protesters, to suppress dissent, to suppress free speech, and to intimidate students into not protesting, which, of course, has not worked: students continue to protest. But it’s the systematic use of police brutality, basically, to enforce tuition increases, for which I want to hold—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the tuition issue is.

NATHAN BROWN: Well, in 2005, tuition at UC campuses was around $6,000. It’s currently around $13,000. And there’s currently a plan proposed by UC President Mark Yudof to increase tuition by 81 percent over the next four years. So that would raise tuition to around $23,000. So, what we’re looking at is, within 10 years, a tuition increase of around $6,000 to $23,000. And that’s what students are protesting.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about your own job? You’re not tenured.

NATHAN BROWN: Of course, it’s always possible that there could be some sort of retribution from the administration. At the same time, I feel like I have a tremendous amount of support from my department, a tremendous amount of support from the Faculty Association, from my colleagues throughout UC Davis and throughout the UC system. And indeed, I’ve been receiving thousands and thousands of letters of support from around the world over the past three days. So, in my opinion, the best way to go about these things as a junior faculty member is to speak up openly. And in that way, you draw a lot of support. And that, I think, will be very helpful in protecting me and protecting other people who speak out, if there’s any effort of retribution by the administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Calls are being—coming in for a banning of police on campus. Who are the security on campus? And, Elli Pearson, who did this to you? Who pepper-sprayed you in the face?

ELLI PEARSON: Well, the University of California, Davis, has police officers on campus, UC Davis police, but we also have an agreement with the city of Davis that police officers can come in when needed. And so, the UC or the Davis police officers came in to help the UC Davis force when they were called for the protest.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, it was the UC Davis police that pepper-sprayed you?

ELLI PEARSON: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you satisfied with the two police officers being put on paid administrative leave?

ELLI PEARSON: No. I mean, I’d like to know who really ordered that it was OK for pepper spray to be used on a peaceful protest.

AMY GOODMAN: And you said you were also protesting in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. Why is that important to you?

ELLI PEARSON: Well, I’m a sustainable agriculture and food systems major, and I’ve studied a lot of the food industry. And food corporations definitely aren’t interested in feeding people; they’re interested in making a profit. And that’s not really healthy for us, good for us, in any way. And I’m also protesting the corporate greed that we see.

AMY GOODMAN: And Nathan Brown, are professors and staff supporting the students?

NATHAN BROWN: They are. One of the most inspiring things about what happened in Berkeley two weeks ago, on November 9th, is that faculty at UC Berkeley stood with their arms linked with students in solidarity. Those faculty were assaulted by the police, just as the students were. At UC Davis, there’s been an outpouring of faculty support for the student movement since that happened on the Berkeley campus. And I think that the statements calling for the resignation of the chancellor and for a policy preventing the forcible removal of students by police issued by the board of the Davis Faculty Association is a very strong statement of support for the student movement.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Nathan Brown, assistant professor of English at UC Davis, speaking to us from the University of California, Berkeley, studios, and thank you to Elli Pearson, sophomore at UC Davis, speaking to us from Davis, California.

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