Commentary: UC-Davis police didn't need the pepper spray

Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton. (Sacramento Bee/MCT)
Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton. (Sacramento Bee/MCT) MCT

She could lose her job, but give her this:

UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi showed courage when she apologized for the actions of her campus police before a massive crowd of students calling for her dismissal.

On Monday, in response to cops infamously pepper-spraying UCD students last Friday, campus organizers staged a rally where several speakers called for Katehi's head before she was summoned to the stage.

"She's not special," one kid crowed into a microphone to huge cheers.

News photographers captured the haunting image of Katehi surrounded by restive students that evoked a stoning in the public square.

Video of the pepper-spraying has gone global and become the face of the "Occupy" movement, stealing the thunder of New York and Oakland. But having stood at the heart of "Occupy" on Monday, I'm sorry to report the movement remains driven by rage without enough thought.

In fact, it was stupidity that thrust Davis into the spotlight in the first place, with the ham-handed actions of campus cops.

Why force a confrontation with kids in broad daylight? Instead of spraying kids with the callous indifference of exterminators fumigating a basement, why not take their tents away and let them be until darkness fell?

With cameras gone and no tents for shelter, cold temperatures would have chased many away. Those who remained could have been removed in a far less volatile setting at 2 or 3 a.m.

This is how Sacramento police often deal with protesters attempting to provoke confrontations.

Police carry the burden of protecting the public while not trampling on First Amendment rights of protesters, a burden heightened on a Davis campus known for activism.

That's why people generally critical of "Occupy" have swung to the defense of the Davis kids.

Now consider the self- inflicted wounds at UCD. On Monday, they had to let the kids return and pitch their tents on the quad – though camping is not a First Amendment right.

If something bad happens in the UCD encampment – as bad things have happened at Occupy encampments nationwide – kids who screamed about the brutality of cops could possibly sue UCD if cops did not protect them.

Katehi says she never authorized the campus police to show up in riot gear or to use force against the students. But the cops did.

The situation does not bode well for the Greek-born academic with a regal bearing, a salary of roughly $400,000 and a goal to raise $1 billion to cement UCD's reputation as an international research center.

All of that could be in jeopardy now, and it's not surprising to me that UCD cops are in the middle of it.

In 2009, I covered a story where the same cops faced a tricky situation and took the most extreme action when it was not necessary.

A graduate teaching assistant, James Marchbanks, had handed forms to students in his drama class so they could evaluate his performance. While doing so, he said: "I have a bomb here."

The student evaluations were the metaphorical "bomb." Some kids complained to campus cops, who might have given Marchbanks a stern lecture.

Instead, they arrested him, and he spent four days in jail.

In my opinion, UCD administrators tossed Marchbanks under the bus then, the same way campus cops are being tossed under the bus now.

In that case, UCD Chief Annette Spicuzza justified police actions with excuses that didn't add up, just as the pepper-spraying doesn't add up now.

Luckily, the Yolo County district attorney declined to prosecute UCD's case against Marchbanks. Few in the media followed that story, but UCD wasn't so lucky this time.

Signatures on petitions calling for Katehi's removal now number in the thousands. On Monday night, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez went to the UCD encampment for a photo-op.

The irony there is that Perez and his Capitol colleagues have done so much damage to campuses such as UCD through massive budget cuts.

If UCD students really wanted to go to the source of tuition inflation, they would pack up their tents and drive across the Yolo Causeway to the Capitol.

Before Katehi was allowed to speak on Monday, Sacramento labor leaders such as Bill Camp had piled onto the Occupy bandwagon. Monday's scene was not inspiring.

The inspirational reaction occurred late Saturday, when UCD students stood in silence as Katehi slunk out of a meeting and walked in shame before them.

By Monday, spontaneity had become calculated. The kids had time to think, but not to think through the formation of a focused message.

Hopefully, they can achieve something more meaningful than getting Katehi dismissed with a golden parachute.

Related stories from McClatchy DC