Pepper Spray Anniversary & Prolegomenon to Students for a Democratic UC

(This is a speech I delivered on November 19th on the UC Davis quad — during an event for the one-year anniversary for the UC Davis pepper-spray incident.)

Hello, my name is Ian Lee, and I was one of the students who was pepper-sprayed on this quad last year. I’ll keep this short.

By now, the pepper-spray incident is almost a bit cliché: students protested, the University sent in riot police, and then the police brutalized us with pepper-spray. But I urge people interested in what happened last year to think about the pepper-spray incident more complexly, and to especially keep in mind that we were not just victims last year: we held our ground and peacefully pushed the police off the quad.

I’m sure we can all remember that the reason we were protesting was that the University had proposed unfair and unreasonable tuition hikes. And we were successful! We were able to temporarily halt tuition hikes because administrators knew that we wouldn’t let them shift the burden of paying for public education onto the student body. But: this struggle against student debt and the privatization of the University is far from over. The upper administration of the UC continues to shift funds away from education and into capital projects; continues to raise its own salaries while cutting funds for research and minority programs; and continues to justify all their actions using the vague notion that this is all due to decreased state funding. In other words, the Regents are selling our university without our consent, and telling us that they have no choice but to do so.

We, the students, know better. We recognize that student debt — which currently totals over a trillion dollars, more than even credit card debt — is caused, in part, by the privatization plan of the UC Regents, many of whom sit on the boards of banks and who have intimate ties to Wall Street. And we, the students, have continued to refuse to let the UC Regents use our tuition as collateral to guarantee the University’s credit rating. We understand that it is not cuts to state funding that cause tuition increases per se, but the University’s privatization plan which causes the loss of state funding in the first place.

We are fighting back, and last year, for the first time in decades, we halted cuts and tuition hikes. This was only accomplished by mass action on the streets and in the halls of UC campuses.

The UC administration recognizes the effectiveness of our protest, and as we all know, brutally tried to squash our dissent, from Berkeley, to Davis, to Irvine, to Riverside. It is through this brutalization that the university was enforcing their tuition hikes. Privatization of the University and militarization of campus police are linked. Ultimately, the pepper-spray incident was caused by the University’s privatization plan.

The University has learned since last year. They have learned that brutal acts of violence cause a public outcry, and so instead have started to charge students after-the-fact with trumped up charges. Somehow the administration views beating us with batons and coating our faces with industrial-grade pepper-spray as legal, but as in the case of the Davis Dozen, views sitting down in front of a bank, allegedly, worth charging students up to eleven years in prison.

The University has also learned that, like steam building in a steam engine, systemic outlets, valves, are necessary to suppress dissent — the logic being that as long as students express themselves through the administration’s channels, it will be OK. This is the reason for all the *redundant* task forces and committees the administration has since created — the Freedom of Expression Team, the Academic Senate Freedom of Expression Special Committee, the Community Committee for Police Reform, et cetera. All these committees are ineffective for our purposes, and only serve the administration’s purpose in effectively suppressing dissent. The more that we believe that some self-appointed bureaucrat is going to make decisions in our best interests, the less we stand up for our own interests, and the less powerful we are as human beings. Because as a general rule, when your targets approve of and are even encouraging your dissent, you should reconsider your premises.

As students fed up with tuition increases — and I see fliers have been passed around — we are creating the Students for a Democratic UC. As stated on the flier, we will meet next Monday at 5PM at the flag pole, because we are sick and tired of having our protest co-opted and used for the administration’s purposes.

In fact this very event was originally planned as a rally, similar to the one we had last year. But the University administration, frightened by the possibility of mass action and student mobilization, was having none of that. Through implicit force, they co-opted this event, effectively forcing the Vice-Chancellor onto this stage, despite our grievances, and transformed this event into a much gentler sounding “Open Mic.”

It is for this reason we are taking this stage back, and I welcome my friend Deanna, who was also pepper-sprayed last year, onto this stage.

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