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Why UC Davis Students Already Lost

Tom Dotan |
November 21, 2011 | 11:07 a.m. PST



Screen Capture from ASUCD Youtube video
Screen Capture from ASUCD Youtube video
I remember many days on the UC Davis campus like the one shown in the video. 

Weather in mid-November finally turns from an affable fall haze to a conspicuous chill.

Soon enough the (California) rains set in and going to class will mean dealing with chapped hands, clipping mud-flaps on your bike, and, not infrequently, not going. 

But for now the climate is nothing too dramatic—a North Face fleece, toe socks, and Ugg boots are usually enough to do the trick.

Thankfully some things remain constant. Seeing the Aggies milling about the Quad in all their mismatched sartorial wonder is about the only thing I can recognize in the video.

The rest of it? Defiant protesters; campus police in riot gear; seeing my undergraduate alma mater become, for a time, a symbol of student resistance—I know UC Davis has a mild case of Berkeley envy, but this is a bit much!

It isn’t that the Aggies don’t have the same level of convictions as any of your garden-variety big state universities. The school—which is the pride of the only true college town in California—honors its role as a piercing blue dot in the red splotch of the Sacramento Valley. Make no mistake, there’s a fierce strain of politics in the city; it just tends to involve bike lanes and farmer’s markets.

And so what if sustained social unrest doesn’t get listed on the school’s brochures? The I-AA football team may not make ripples, but if undoing a bike-lock one-handed while talking on the phone and rolling a backpack were a nationally televised sport, ESPN Gameday would be camped out there like it was Alabama.

Measuring these memories of undergrad against what transpired last Friday, the disconnect is glaring.

Students on the quad, holding hands while waiting peacefully to be evicted from their protest, were victim to what at best could be described as a botched police action. When things got, as the police maintain, a bit dodgy, a campus lieutenant sprayed a caustic mist of…something orange and heinous at the protestors. 

Whatever it was (Paprika spray? Agent Orange? That smoke from “The Wizard of Oz” that announced the arrival of the Wicked Witch of the West?) it managed to spark an epic shitstorm that has brought calls for Chancellor Linda Katehi, who approved the eviction (though perhaps not the methods thereof) to resign. 

More powerfully, it inspired a scene of political theater Saturday that was downright virtuosic. As Katehi walked to her car, she did so along a pathway lined by stone-cold silent students. It felt eerily like the final scene from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

This was a bravado display of non-violent resistance that may be one of the most searing images of one of the most documented eras of unrest in American history.

Too bad, then, that the students already lost.

Sure, there’s a chance that mounting pressure from a story that’s gone global will force Katehi out of her position. But do not misplace the protestor’s sense of justice with their initial demands. At the same time students were pitching tents on the quad, state budgets for public universities were being gutted—$100 million in a recent proposal adding onto the $1 billion from earlier this year. At the same time the Aggies were being maced, a group of students at Cal State Long Beach (Long Beach!) were arrested for disrupting a regent meeting to discuss yet another tuition hike.

Since I first entered the school eight years ago, tuitions at UC schools have gone up astronomically. An education that cost $5,000 in my day is currently $12,000 and rising. Projections. as they are, say it could double even that.

Across the board, students are paying more, getting less and becoming increasingly irrelevant to the system.  Although the media has lumped the Davis incidents with the Occupy camps being dismantled across the country, Occupy is only a prepubescent scion to the plight of public university students.

This rally Friday was about resisting the “increasing privatization of the public university system,” wrote the protest’s faculty advisor. People may want to blame Katehi for the ills of the school, but she’s only a pawn with a nicer outfit. Today she will shake her head and apologize. Tomorrow tuition will rise. The insults at Davis are far worse than the injury.

“The university system is in freefall,” said a former UC Davis music professor of mine not long ago. I wrote it off as the dramatic stylings of a liberal arts coot at the time, but I’m glad as hell I wasn’t there to find out for myself.

Such are the grounds that have sent students at my ineffably mild-mannered school down the paths of civil disobedience. The school that emphasizes community enough to print their “Principles of Community” on the back of every ID card is now symbolic of the canyon between administration and student.

It was eight years ago that I first enrolled in UC Davis. Every year the school runs a community book project where incoming freshman are recommended a single book to be a campus-wide touchstone. The community book is also intended to represent a social ideal that students, faculty, and administration can strive for. 

It had been eight years and I’d forgotten about the project until this weekend when I was perusing through the school's site. Then, all at once I recalled my freshman year book in a mist of hot, burning irony.

2003: Gandhi's Way: A Handbook of Conflict Resolution

Eight years never seemed so long ago.


Reach Editor-at-Large Tom Dotan here

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