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Bob Ostertag

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Clown Show at UC Davis -- Too Bad It's Not Funny

Posted: 04/20/2012 4:06 pm

Remember those videos of campus police pepper spraying seated students in the face at UC Davis last November? Old news, right? Well, it has taken all this time for the task force appointed by the UC president to make its report public (thanks in part to a lawsuit filed by the police union blocking publication). The top administrators here on the Davis campus seem to be banking on the glacial pace of the investigation to save their jobs. And it might work. If this report had been issued in the glare of the international media that showed up on campus in the aftermath of the incident, these folks would be outta there.

Student activists, however, are hoping at least someone out there is still paying attention. And the matter is indeed worth your attention, because the details of the report have a lot to say about the state of higher education leadership in California, how degraded ideas like freedom of speech and constitutional rights have become, and the institutional environment in which students with a social conscience are coming of age.

The "report" is actually two reports, one done by Kroll, a security consulting firm led by William J. Bratton, NYC Police Commissioner when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. The second report, based on the findings of the first report, is from a Task Force led by former California State Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso. Since the two are published together under one cover, I will just call them the report.

Most people on campus expected the report to lay the blame for the incident squarely on Police Chief Annette Spicuzza and Lt. John Pike (the one with the pepper spray in those horrendous videos). Well, Spicuzza and Pike did get slammed and hard, but the harshest rebuke was directed at the top leadership of the campus administration, beginning with Chancellor Linda Katehi and including her entire leadership team.

At the end of the day, the commission found that Chancellor Katehi has been running an administration in which "the actions of the Leadership Team provide a case study in how not to make important institutional decisions."

There was so much going wrong with this crew it is hard to know where to begin, so let's start at the beginning: there was no legal basis for forcing the students to dismantle their tents and leave the quad.

Yep, you read that right. The students weren't doing anything wrong. No law was being broken. In fact, as the report documents in excruciating detail, from the moment the administration began telling the students they had to leave, the most common response from students was to peacefully and respectfully ask, "How is this unlawful?" or "What law are we breaking?" The students stuck to this position as various school officials and police changed their explanation from one law to another to another, or simply told them it didn't matter what the law was. The students kept up their questioning right up until they were getting pepper sprayed in the face.

Katehi's administration was so clueless on this fundamental issue that Kroll felt compelled to include in its report the following reminder to the university:

In a democratic society, police are controlled by the law. It is the law, primarily Constitutional and criminal law, which gives police the authority and power to take action. Here, there is a fundamental question as to which law gave police the authority to take down the tents and arrest those who opposed them. Without the legal authority to demand that the tents be removed, the police lose the legal authority for much of what subsequently transpired on November 18, including the issuance of an order to disperse and the declaration of an unlawful assembly.

Beautiful. The firm run by Rudy Giuliani's top cop reminding the leadership of one of the top public universities in the country that university officials are not above the US Constitution.

You might be startled to learn that among the entire "leadership team," the only person who seems to have been bothered by the fact that the entire action was illegal and unconstitutional, and who raised the question again and again, was Lt. Pike, the guy pepper spraying everyone in the face. Perfect.

Chancellor Katehi never considered any alternative plan to sending in police to tear down the tents. The cops were the first resort, not the last. She did so because she was convinced that most of the protestors were not students. In fact they were all students, plus some alumni and local religious activists offering the students food. Katehi had been fed this line by the police department, which somehow manufactured it from hearsay. The one person on the Katehi team who had been spending much time with the students protested strenuously that the protestors were all students, and Katehi simply ignored her: didn't debate her, didn't send someone else out to the tents to get a clearer picture; just ignored her.

Kroll describers her leadership team as in total disarray. Decisions were made ad hoc, and all the people involved in the decisions had mutually incompatible understandings of what the decisions even were.  There are procedures and protocols in place that she was supposed to follow to avoid precisely these problems. She ignored them all. 

The campus police department was found to be as "deeply dysfunctional" as the administration. Officers routinely ignored orders from the Chief, who spent the pepper spray event in civilian clothes standing in the crowd filming the events on her cell phone along with everyone else. I'm not kidding.

The police claimed the reason things escalated was that their officers were surrounded and could not leave. The task force found that the police were not surrounded, and several officers left and came back without incident. The real reason things escalated was that the police arbitrarily arrested a few students and just left them sitting on the grass handcuffed because the police had simply forgotten to make any plan for what to do with prisoners. There was no place to take them. Some officers thought there would be a bus, but there was no bus.

One reason the plan was so inadequate was that the police chief did not even attend the planning meeting. Though the Chief was so utterly incompetent we cannot assume her presence would have improved anything.

How about this one: the students finally took the tents down. The pepper spraying occurred after after the tents were down. Even loaded onto a truck. There were no tents left in the Quad. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

The pepper spray that was used is not an approved weapon for the UC Davis Police, and they had not been trained in how to use it. The task force could not figure out how it even wound up in the hands of Lt. Pike.

And it goes on. I cannot even begin to include everything in the comedy of errors that resulted in the chemical assault on the students.

Feeling proud to be an American right now? Imagine how it feels to be on the Davis faculty. In the wake of the pepper spraying, the Davis Academic Senate voted by a large margin to endorse the leadership of Linda Katehi. The thinking went that, well, OK, maybe some rogue cop went overboard on her watch, but that is hardly her fault. And anyway she is a brilliant administrator whom the campus cannot afford to do without at this time of crisis. That would be the same Chancellor Katehi that the report found "provides a case study in how not to make important institutional decisions."

More importantly, imagine being a student at Davis. Here, finally, you can actually feel proud, because the report describes, in great detail, the actions of a truly inspiring bunch of young people. When Lt. Pike gave the illegal order to disperse, the protestors deferred to a student with a bullhorn who stated, "We are not in violation of University policy. We have a right to be here right now. At this moment, we are assembling peacefully, and have a right to be here." When Pike repeated his warning, students answered, "What law have we broken?" When the police brandished their batons, students chanted back, "Books Not Batons."

After a handful of students had been arbitrarily singled out and arrested, a student proposed (using the others as a "mic check"), "We are going -- to support our friends -- who were unjustly arrested -- for participating in their rights -- let's march peacefully -- as one -- towards where they are being held."

Incredibly, even when confronted by a line of riot police brandishing pepper spray guns and batons, the students remained not only non-violent but democratic. From the report:

The crowd then proceeded to engage in impromptu consensus-based decision-making: at approximately 3:56 p.m., an activist stated, "I propose -- that we pass a resolution -- to demand the cops -- off the Quad" and the proposal was met by cheers. The proposal was then announced to have "passed." A female seated activist yelled, "Proposal passed, you gotta go!"... Meanwhile, a woman made a "mic check" announcement proposing an amendment to the accepted "Cops off the Quad" proposal, saying "I think we should ask politely -- because demands -- only inspire fear." ... As Pike shook the canister of pepper spray visibly, the crowd stopped chanting and reacted in different ways, including helping the seated activists to cover their head and face. The seated activists pulled their hoods over their heads, pulled scarves up to cover their faces or bent their faces toward their chests.

And then they got blasted. Surely you have seen the video.

So, uh, as you can see, the cops were, uh, scared for their lives. I mean, the students were sitting down! Covering their faces! Pulling scarves over their heads! What else could the cops have done?

If this makes you so mad you want to actually do something about it, I have something for you. Protests at Davis did not end that day. Like Occupy activists around the country, some Davis students reconsidered their tactic of occupying public space and decided to fine-tune their "occupy" tactics by occupying a bank rather than the Quad. A series of sit-ins at the branch of the U.S. Bank on campus followed. The protestors were as non-violent there as they had been on the Quad. The administration, still reeling from the pepper spray catastrophe, stood back and let them alone, until U.S. Bank got fed up and announced it would close the branch. At that point the campus administration forwarded the names of the protestors to the county DA for prosecution, leaving the clear impression that in the current condition of the Davis campus, actions only count as crimes when banks say so.

Many of the students facing charges are the same ones who were pepper sprayed.

If that makes you mad, why not send a couple of bucks to the student defense fund.

Speaking of money, the University of California paid Kroll $445,879.40 for its report, and anther $100,000 to a "reputation and risk-management" consultant in NYC the Davis campus coped with the worldwide attention brought on by a viral video of the pepper-spraying. The Davis campus is paying another law firm billing at $250 and hour to run its own investigation (still not finished 5 months later, but what's the rush?). And then there is the outstanding student lawsuit against the university which could cost the school a very pretty penny.

In the build-up to the pepper spraying, Assistant Vice Chancellor Griselda Castro warned Katehi and her colleagues, "It'd be cheaper to put two Porta-Potties and have the police patrol than if something goes wrong." Once again, Katehi ignored this advice. After the pepper spray, students returned to the Quad with tents and camped for several weeks. This time, the the world's media breathing down their necks, instead of sending pepper spray the school provided portable toilets, lights and hand-washing stations to the encampment. Total cost: $2,237.

And while we are on the question of money, Chancellor Katehi makes $400,000 a year plus car and housing. This caused some controversy when she was hired in 2009, but in the end the university decided her brilliant administrative skills were worth the exorbitant figure. Chief Spicuzza earned $140,417 to mismanage the police department. Lt. Pike is still collecting his $110,243 salary (he is on paid administrative leave).

Just for comparison, Pike's pay is nearly double the staring salary for tenured professors. You know: people with PhDs, books, that kind of stuff.

Finally, in case you are mystified where the extra 40 cents in the fee UC paid to Kroll came from, the local Davis newspaper figured it out:

Turns out the $455,879.40 for Kroll was billed at $300 an hour... first, we have to break down the 300 bucks an hour into smaller units, such as $5 a minute, or 8.3 cents per second... Turns out one Kroll investigator was five seconds into writing a report when his cell phone rang with a personal, non-business call ... he turned off the clock, then resumed working after he finished the call... at 8.3 cents per second, those five seconds of work prior to the call should have cost UCD 41.5 cents, but ever mindful that the campus was working on a strict budget, Kroll rounded it back to just 40 cents... a bargain, to be sure."
 
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