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UC Davis Students and Faculty Face Prison Time for Peaceful Protest Against Bank

The pepper spraying of UC Davis students shocked the nation, but the persecution that the Davis Dozen protesters face is far worse.
 
 
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The pepper-spraying of University of California Davis protesters on November 18, 2011 promised to be a galvanizing moment for the student movement after University Police Lieutenant John Pike used military grade pepper spray at point blank range on seated protesters who had peacefully assembled to demonstrate against tuition hikes at UC Davis.  The world took notice. Not only did the Lieutenant Pike pepper-spray “meme” spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter, major news outlets gave the event coverage, to varying degrees of depth and understanding.



But it seems that the University administration has successfully evaded scrutiny of the role it played in a series of events that began in January at UC Davis when 12 protesters, some of whom had been pepper-sprayed in November, staged another peaceful sit-in at the campus branch of US Bank.  The sit-in was an important political action in defense of public funding of the University and against the replacement of that funding by private contracts with corporations.  The protestors won an enormous victory when US Bank closed it University branch on February 28, possibly breaking its agreement with UC Davis.

 

Banks have no place on University campuses for many reasons. Part of the function of the contract UC Davis had with US Bank allowed the administration’s continued shift of funding of the University from public to private sources. This is particularly problematic when the private source of funding is a corporate bank, because banks make money from rising tuition costs, in the form of interest from student loans.  In other words: university contracts with banks encourage tuition hikes, because banks stand to profit directly from rising tuition, while the administration comes to rely on funding from bank contracts.

This is a part of a vicious cycle that is destroying the public character of the UC system — and costing thousands of dollars to students in increased tuition and long-term debt every year.  Just six years ago, tuition at the University of California was $5,357. Tuition is currently $12,192. According to current proposals, it will be $22,068 by 2015-2016, amounting to a 312% increase in just 10 years. These tuition hikes increasingly force more and more students out of higher education altogether and put untenable financial burdens on those who must take out crippling loans and work extra jobs for an education that is now public in name only.

The protestors’ success in this fight against the privatization agenda of the University should be cause for celebration; however, on March 29, nearly a month after the bank pulled out of UC Davis, the 11 students and 1 professor involved in the sit-in received orders to appear at Yolo County Superior Court.  At the request of the UC Davis administration, District Attorney Jeff Reisig is charging the so-called Davis Dozen with 20 counts each of obstructing movement in a public place, and one count of conspiracy.  If convicted, the protesters could each face up to 11 years each in prison, and $1 million in damages.  The UC Davis administration is sending a clear message to protesters: dissent will not be tolerated.  And those who do protest will face a violence much more pernicious than pepper-spraying at the hands of Lieutenant Pike. 



Unfortunately, this time around there is no graphic youtube video that could potentially go viral and capture the psychological and financial stress the protesters are under as they face the possibility of having to leave school and, even worse, say goodbye to friends, family, partners and children as they go off to serve time in the California penal system.  There is no video to elicit gasps of horror at the threat of a lifetime of financial ruin that the protesters face.  There is no video to show the unremitting repression of their democratic right to freedom of assembly and political protest.  



There is no video to capture the machinations of the UC Davis administration, under the direction of Chancellor Linda Katehi, who appears to be seeking retribution for the pending ACLU lawsuit against the university for the pepper spray incident.  Whereas no charges were filed against the protestors after the pepper spray incident, the District Attorney is now quite willing to prosecute the 12 demonstrators charged with “obstructing movement in a public place”.

Obstructing movement in a public place? That sounds a whole lot like an ad hoc law designed to silence dissent. And what better time for the UC Davis Administration to subject protesters to an absurd version of the law than when nobody is watching?  If the world were watching, surely we would ask why these peaceful protesters could be sentenced to 11 years in prison, which, for the sake of comparison, is the maximum penalty for voluntary manslaughter in the state of California.  It bears repeating: students and faculty who put their educations, careers, families as well as their own bodies on the line to defend the accessibility of public education for all, now stand to serve the same sentence as a felon who has killed another human being.  

The pepper spraying of UC Davis students shocked the nation, but the persecution that the Davis Dozen protesters face is far worse.  It is life-altering for them.

 We cannot allow the story of the Davis Dozen to fall through the cracks, even though it might not strike a chord as immediately visceral as the now infamous video of Lieutenant Pike attacking students with a chemical agent. Let us reflect on the tragic irony that the state funding that should be allocated to aiding the intellectual growth and development of the 11 students involved in the sit-in might be funneled towards their incarceration.  The modest salary that is paid to a professor, committed enough to advocate for public education might be replaced by state money to keep this highly gifted professional locked up.

And indeed, if we look at where the state money paid by the people of California for services to foster the common good, we can plainly see that this scenario is a sinister microcosm.  In 2011, the UC and CSU systems account for $5.6 billion of state funding, while the prisons are receiving $9.6 billion dollars from the state.  The state spends about $50,000 per inmate each year.  We cannot look the other way and allow the boot of the penal system to fall on these protesters, while corrupt University administrators secure the way to enrich the 1% on California’s dime with impunity and at the expense of public education.  We must immediately demand that all charges be dropped against the Davis Dozen.



Their petition: http://davisdozen.org/petition.php



How to Help on Davis Dozen website: http://davisdozen.org/help.html

Mela Heestand is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at University of California Davis. She is currently living in the Boston area where she is involved in grass-roots organizing.