(This is a speech I delivered on November 18th on the UC Davis quad — during an event remembering the ten-year anniversary of the UC Davis pepper-spray incident. The event was organized by UC Davis Cops Off Campus, Young Democratic Socialists of America at UC Davis, and other campus organizations.)
Hey all, my name is Ian. And ten years ago, I was a freshman here at UC Davis. I was 18 years old then — and I’m 28 now. Honestly, I look out at this crowd, and I *can’t believe* it’s been *ten years* since me and my fellow student organizers got pepper-sprayed on this very quad — [humorously] honestly, y’all just look so, so young to me.
When I first heard about this event, I really struggled with what I wanted to say.
I didn’t want to talk about my trauma — for while the pepper-spray incident was profoundly traumatic for me, and traumatic for many, many years afterwards — I’ve since healed. The pepper-spray incident no longer affects me emotionally, and I’ve grown past it. In fact, for the last seven years, I’ve been working as a union organizer, and I’m proud to say I’ve successfully helped thousands of workers organize labor unions at their workplaces.
When I was struggling with what I wanted to say, I also didn’t want to lecture this crowd. I hated that when I was a student organizer here at Davis — seasoned, professional organizers coming to us, telling us how to do activism, how to do organizing. I felt back then that seasoned, professional organizers didn’t know what they were talking about. And [humorously] now that *I’ve become* a seasoned, professional organizer myself, I can confirm — none of us know what we’re actually talking about. At least not when it comes to how to build a true, militant, strong Left in this country. If any of us knew how to do that, we’d be doing it, or we’d have done it.
No, as I reflected on what I wanted to say on this ten-year anniversary of the pepper-spray incident, I came to just two main thoughts — two thoughts that I felt I might be able to provide given my perspective. So if you’ll allow me, here are those two thoughts.
One. In the passive memories of most people within this region, the pepper-spray incident is remembered as a “misuse of police force,” a ridiculous over-reaction from the police to a student protest.
But I’d like to challenge this interpretation. As we’ve seen all too clearly over the last ten years, these “misuses of police force” are a pattern. They target working-class communities, and in particular, they target working-class communities of color.
In the years that followed the pepper-spray incident, I’ve sometimes wondered if that was one of the reasons the video of us being pepper-sprayed went so viral — well-to-do white folks were just *not able to believe* that police assaulted students at what-is-often-perceived as a middle-class, white university.
Nonetheless, I think what often gets forgotten about the pepper-spray incident is *the very reason* we were protesting in the first place. So let’s rewind.
At the time, there was a worldwide mobilization of working-class people rising up — in many countries building legitimate revolutionary movements — all part of what-was-then-known as the Occupy movement. The key signature of the Occupy movement was that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world were building these “tent cities” in public areas to protest economic inequality.
Here at the University of California, the UC Regents had proposed an *81% tuition hike*. As students, we knew that was unacceptable — it would have pushed working-class students, and in particular, working-class students of color, out of the University. We knew we had to join the Occupy movement, and so we set up a tent city — a couple dozen of us — here on this very quad.
Now, I venture to bet — if we were UC Davis Outdoor Adventures, I doubt dozens of riot police would have been called on us.
I venture to bet — if we were the UC Davis Backpacking Club, I doubt dozens of riot police would have been called on us.
No, dozens of riot police were called on us because we were a protest movement targeting the UC. The UC did not like our protest movement, and so they, in effect, called riot police on us to enforce their tuition hikes. They brutalized the student movement at UC Berkeley first, then here at UC Davis, then at UC Riverside, then at UCLA, etc., etc., etc.
Ultimately, the root cause of the pepper-spray incident was the UC Regent’s privatization plan. Privatization of the UC and police violence are linked. One enforces the other. And this is true at UC Davis — as well as society at large. It is no coincidence that the most policed neighborhoods are also the most impoverished. The police are the enforcement mechanism of capitalist interests.
Now, since the pepper-spray incident, UC Davis has made modest campus police reforms. For example, riot police are no longer supposed to be called on student protesters. That’s a good change, I’ll give them that. But nothing about the underlying power-structure has changed.
Making minor police reforms while enthusiastically embracing privatization — and continuing to raise tuition — is really just pushing working-class demographics out of the campus and onto other non-reformed police departments.
Rethinking policing means rethinking it all, not just a few changes to campus police that student organizers forced UC Admin to make. Let me make it absolutely clear that there is no real police reform without *fundamentally addressing the privatization and neoliberalization of the University and of society at large*.
Thought Two. We were definitely victims on November 18th, 2011. It took years of my life to fully process and heal from UC Davis police assaulting me and my friends. I remember being continuously triggered as a student here on campus. But! *We were not just victims*. I implore everyone to watch the full video of what happened on November 18th. After the cops pepper-sprayed us and threw many of us in the back of police vans, the crowd became pure rage. It was just so obviously f*cked up what had just happened.
And the crowd came together and organized.
Because everyone in the crowd was so united — student activists, sure, but even students who’d never been to a protest before came together strongly and militantly — the crowd was able to successfully push the cops off the quad. Let me repeat that: as students united together, we were able to successfully push the cops off the quad.
We were victims that day, but we also transformed into a militant force. We made the cops *afraid of us*. And for a short while at least, we held the power. We held this quad.
In the days following the pepper-spray incident, I learned a key lesson I’ve taken with me to this very day: when normal working people come together, we build power. When normal working people come together, we can confront the structures above us, and we can become more powerful than them. We can scare them. And we can win.
In the months following the pepper-spray incident, my fellow student organizers and I built a militant student movement here on campus. We canvassed. We did class-raps. We built lists of thousands and thousands of students supportive of the movement. We phonebanked, we turned-out, we educated, and we organized.
I want everyone here to take a look at the back of your student ID cards. Ten years ago, there was a US Bank logo there. It is no longer there — you won’t see a US Bank logo — because following the pepper-spray incident, my fellow student organizers and I blockaded the entrance of a US Bank that used to be at the center of the MU, a bank that was paying a million dollars a year to UC Davis to entrap students in predatory, private student loans. We organized mass student support behind our blockade of the bank, and ultimately, we forced the UC Davis administration to cut its million dollar contract with US Bank. With our united student power, we forced US Bank off campus.
In the months following our successful “US Bank Off Campus” campaign, my fellow student organizers and I turned out hundreds and hundreds of students to union picket lines — for our campus service workers represented by AFSCME 3299; for the campus techs with UPTE; for the teaching assistants, research assistants, etc., with UAW 2865. And we forged deep relationships — a deep coalition — with those labor unions, so much so that we built so much power that we not only lifted thousands of service workers out of poverty through AFSCME’s union contract campaign, but we were able to halt tuition hikes for the first time in decades. Let me repeat that, because working people stood together in the tens of thousands, because we came together, because we built our power, we were able to halt tuition hikes for the first time in decades.
There’s a common protest chant that goes, “When we fight, we win.”
That protest chant is so cliché that I don’t think we always really take the time to notice what it actually means.
It was true back in 2011 — and it remains true now in 2021. In the last decade, I’ve witnessed thousands and thousands of working people come together, join together, build their power together, beat back their bosses — and win labor unions.
And I am so inspired by the current wave of labor strikes I see across this country. So, please join me…
When we fight… [we win]!
When we fight… [we win]!