Viewpoint: Keep student protests safe

BY JESSE KLEIN

Published November 27, 2011

Watching the videos of the University of California, Davis police brutality gave me the shivers. More than that, it made me want to cry, scream with rage and yell for change to anyone who would listen, no matter if they had any power to change what was happening or not. I am from Palo Alto, Calif. and have 43 friends and classmates at UC-Davis. I was planning to visit them over the absurdly long summer. Now I am not so sure. Do I want to go visit a place that sprays its students with pepper spray as they scream and cry?

The videos are disturbing to say the least. The screams and choked cries of the 17 to 23-year-old students make my hands shake as I type this. My heart rate kicked up, and my breathing became shallow. How could a police officer, probably with children or at least nieces and nephews, do this to a group of young people? In the video, the students watching the scene yell through pepper spray induced coughs, and shout their support for protests and disbelief of the police. Camera phones are pulled out of pockets to capture irrefutable proof of these outrageously cruel acts. Students look out for each other. The spectators warn protesters of the incoming pepper spray. And after students are dragged from their peaceful circle, knelt on, handcuffed and driven away, chants of “shame on you” and “this is our university” reverberate around the quad.

As police officers at a public university, the officers involved in the UC-Davis incident have likely been around young adults each day of work. Their job description is to protect students as they make the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood. College can be a confusing time in which experimentation and boundary pushing can go wrong and in some cases cause extreme harm. Campus police are supposed to prevent these problems, not cause them.

At the University of Michigan, the University's Department of Public Safety has made it clear that the students are the number one priority. The blue light emergency buttons on campus and safe walk programs are clear indicators that they take student safety seriously. During orientation a DPS officer came to speak to incoming freshmen, which, in a day full of boring speeches and PowerPoints, was the one thing that really stood out. The officer told the group that he would rather get a call and have it be nothing, than not get a call and have it be something. Even though DPS can be a pain — busting parties and searching dorm rooms — I know that if I was feeling uncomfortable I could call and they would be there. But it’s possible that UC-Davis officers put the same emphasis on safety to their freshman, and instead of abiding by the policy, they turned on their own students.

Protests and demonstrations have long been a part of university life. College students are outspoken people, and their schools give them the freedom to express their opinions. Most universities value that in their students. The University of Michigan has shown respect for peaceful student protests, which can be interpreted as their commitment to the Leaders and Best among their student body. Universities are supposed to encourage peaceful protests, but instead, UC-Davis, or at least some of its police, decided that eliminating an annoyance was more important than encouraging students to act as leaders.

Jesse Klein is an LSA freshman.