University of California settles pepper spraying case
I was a student at Indiana University's main campus in Bloomington during the late '60s. It was the height of the Black Power, Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War, and Women’s Liberation Movements. I was a founding member of IU’s Black Student Union. We organized and led protest marches and demonstrations, including sit-ins and take-overs of University buildings, Board of Trustees meetings, and in front of the Chancellor’s house. We were often warned – threatened -- by campus cops and University officials with various sanctions unless we “cease and desist” our activism.
In fact, after disrupting a “traditional” basketball game between Purdue University and IU, I was summoned to the Registrar’s Office, shown pictures of myself at the game among my compatriots with my fist held high in the “Black Power” salute. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t leave that “radical group” and get back to the “reason you’re here,” my scholarships, grants and loans would be rescinded, and I would be suspended and/or expelled from school. “And, what would your parents say….your people?”
I recount this history because today the L.A. Times is reporting that the University of California at Davis has just reached a settlement with those students, faculty and alumni who were pepper sprayed 10 months ago while demonstrating against UC as a part of the “Occupy Wall Street Movement.” The incident was highly publicized, and in fact, went viral on YouTube. The students sued, alleging that UC violated their civil rights.
According to the Times, no details of the suit have yet been divulged because a federal judge has yet to approve the settlement. But, once approved, the settlement is expected to be made public.
Jonathan Stein, the UC "student" regent, said the settlement was warranted. "We did an injustice to our students that day at Davis, and some amount of recompense is appropriate. More importantly, it's time for us as an institution to publicly acknowledge that's not the way we should treat our students; we were wrong, and we are moving forward."
An actual “Regent” of UC, Leslie Tang Schilling, said the regents settled because the school simply needed to move on. "It was a really unfortunate incident," she said.
The video showed a campus cop casually spraying students directly in their faces at close range. The students were sitting on the ground, singing "freedom songs," laughing, talking...and yes, yelling at the cops. Get 'em! The complaint against the University also called for a reorganization of the campus police force and “sensitivity training” in how to handle student demonstrations.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, who led a study of the department, wrote that UC Davis police had violated its own policy and that the school mishandled the whole thing from start to finish. That report came out in April of this year.
In May, another report called for “mediation” rather than “confrontation.” The use of “force” (including pepper spray) was to be employed only as a “last resort.”
Money for the settlement will come from UC's self-insurance program, which sits on roughly $600 million.
I did not graduate from Indiana University. Not because of my activism, but at my eventual disgust with America following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After April 4, 1968, I hung around IU for another 18 months, half-heartedly taking classes, and grew more and more mad at "the system." Yeah, I was (still am) a “militant.” Finally, I went home to Michigan City, Ind., for spring break in ’70 and just never went back to Bloomington. What was the point, I thought. If they will kill this man, this man of peace, what was the point of getting an education? I got a job as a truck dispatcher for Roadway Trucking Company in Chicago. Six months later I was drafted into the Army.
My point here is that back then, it was rare that university officials would use actual violence against its own students. (Kent State University, 1970, notwithstanding). We were caught up in “the movement.” Dr. King was having success after success in the South, and we tried to emulate him.
Of course, later I realized that dropping out of college would have been the absolute last thing that Dr. King would have wanted me to do. But, what did I know...really know at 19 or 20? It seems being "young" and "dumb" really are often a matched set. (After quickly enlisting in the navy, getting out in '74, I finally finished my bachelors degree, and got a masters later in political science).
Also, later I found out that every one of our demands against Indiana Univesity were eventually met: More black students on campus (there were only 500 of us out of a 29,000-member student body); more black tenured faculty (only two had tenure in 1968); divestiture of University funds from companies and businesses supporting the "defense" industry, especially Dow Chemical Company (producers of napalm used against the Vietnamese); and more female professors.
And so, I identify completely with the students at UC-Davis. In my day, though, there was no internet or Youtube to publicize our grievances and the University's heavy-handed responses. Also, it never even occurred to us to sue the University.
Perhaps the old saying is true: The more things change, the more they remain they same.
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