On Friday, 11/18/11, police at UC Davis doused nonviolent protesters with pepper spray.

The police officer with the pepper spray, identified as Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Campus Police, looks utterly nonchalant, for all the world as if he were hosing aphids off a rose bush.  The scene bespeaks a lack of basic human empathy, an utter intolerance for dissent, or perhaps both.  Pike’s actions met with approval from the chief of campus police, Annette Spicuzza, “who observed the chaotic events on the Quad, [and] said immediately afterward that she was ‘very proud’ of her officers.” Clearly in Chief Spicuzza’s mind there was nothing exceptional about the use of pepper spray against nonviolent protesters.

Campus and community response has held otherwise. Chancellor Linda Katehi (the Chancellor is the top administrative officer of a UC campus) sent an email Friday afternoon saying, “We are saddened to report that during this activity, 10 protestors were arrested and pepper spray was used.”  Note the Reaganesque passive voice.  One might well conclude from that construction that the protesters were the ones using the pepper spray; one does not have one’s attention called to the fact that the Chancellor herself ordered the police to the quad.

A Saturday email from the Chancellor uses slightly stronger language: “Yesterday was not a day that would make anyone on our campus proud”—clearly the Chancellor hasn’t spoken to Chief Spicuzza—“… 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.”

But it is clear that the use of pepper spray was not so much chilling as routine for the police officers and also, again, that Chancellor Katehi ordered the police to clear the quad of protesters. Was she then surprised by what ensued?  Did she not see what happened at UC Berkeley only a week ago?  Based on even a passing familiarity with both recent and more distant history, the results should and could have been predicted; a reasonable person should have known to a first approximation how UC campus police might respond when facing nonviolent protesters, and, most important, a prudent administrator should have given strict instructions on how to handle such a situation.

What is remarkable here is less the error of zeal than the sin of ignorance. Violence is an ineffective response to nonviolent protest, a fan to the flames of community unrest. Those of us who teach the history of the US in the 1960s know this; Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in the nonviolent Civil Rights movement understood how to capitalize on the pigheaded stupidity of the policemen they faced. Eugene “Bull” Connor, police chief of Birmingham, used fire hoses and Alsatians against nonviolent protesters, including schoolchildren and college students; Jim Clark, the sheriff at Selma, used tear-gas and billy clubs. Their names we know, for these characters are inextricable from major Civil Rights victories: they helped create the indelible images that shocked the world and fostered lasting change in America.

Or perhaps not that much has changed after all. To see the attitudes of segregationist police officers toward civil dissenters recapitulated on our campus is a matter of great shame. As Chancellor Katehi suggests in her statement linked above, UC Davis should be “a place of inquiry, debate, and even dissent.” We cannot fathom how such sentiments can coexist with the callous brutality of Friday. That said, we agree with the Chancellor. Universities should devote themselves to inquiry and learning. Such activities can thrive only in an atmosphere that not only tolerates but encourages rigorous debate and dissent, an atmosphere in which students and faculty feel confident and safe even when they choose to confront the administration with contrary opinions.

Americans have known for decades it is both immoral and ineffective to meet nonviolence with violence. UC Berkeley and its Chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, provided us a reminder of this lesson last week. But we forget nothing and learn nothing. Ronald Reagan, after all, met UC protesters with tear gas. Which can help you get attention so you can run for higher office. But it is no way to run a campus.

—Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway