THE BLOG

UC Davis Protest 101: The Power of the Citizen Witness

11/22/2011 05:21 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

I have never been ashamed of my alma mater, UC Davis, until I watched the video of the police pepper spraying peaceful protesters -- young students who looked a lot like my peers in the 1960s when we protested the Vietnam War. Then, we sat on railroad tracks to stop munitions trains; we burned our draft cards; we buried our friends who died in a far-away land for what even we recognized as a shameful and cynical proxy war of super powers.

Now, the UC Davis Occupy students -- like so many disinherited young people all over the world -- are protesting not the loss of life in battlefields, but the loss of their future. Our kids are burdened by college loan debts, while Wall Street continues to give itself golden parachutes. Big banks hoard the very bailout monies Main Street lent them. And for the first time, statistics show that our next generation will not be better off than their parents. Our kids have every right to take to the streets and rebel against this kind of crooked deal. What use is a hard-won diploma if unemployment awaits the graduate? What use is our legacy if it is only to disinherit our young?

Watching the viral video of the UC Davis protesters not only made me ashamed and angry at my alma mater, it also brought back a vivid memory: It is the late sixties and Ronald Reagan is governor. Our governor has dropped tear gas on the UC Berkeley campus where one of my best friends was studying in the library. Reagan has brutally attacked the Flower Power protests of People's Park, and slashed the library budget of all UC universities. Outraged, about 300 students from UC Davis gather on campus to protest because Governor Reagan is coming to speak here. As we student mill around with our hand-made signs: "We Need Books" and "Keep Our Library Free from Politics," we are suddenly herded into a small, rectangular courtyard. Our signs are forcibly taken from us. Many of the protesters are kept outside. Our numbers reduced, we feel corralled, our voices reduced.

Suddenly there is jostling as campus police move us back to allow Governor Reagan and his coterie to enter the courtyard. Everyone starts shouting. I notice a well-dressed older man next to me yell out profanities. I wonder why. He's obviously not with the protesters. Then I realize that his profane language has forced the news cameras to turn off all audio.

Into this muted crowd of young protesters strides Ronald Reagan with his movie star make-up and million-dollar smile. Even as we shout at him, he waves like a prom king to his court. It makes no sense to me, this disconnect between Reagan's royal entrance and the protesting peons. No sense, that is, until I watch the evening news and see my first experience with "the spin." On those brief video clips, our small gaggle of protesters looks like a cheering crowd. Our grimaces look like chimpanzee smiles, our signs are gone, our voices are silenced. It might as well be a promo or puff piece for the governor and his anti-intellectual policies.

I've never forgotten that 1960s media manipulation. The movie star governor who knew how to frame a scene and work the camera angles, if not the crowd. It got him all the way to the presidency.

But as I watched the UC Davis protesters I realized there was actually some hope -- and change since my protest days at UCD. Everyone was a camera and no one could spin it or cut it or censor it. That's because all the students were raising their smart phone cameras to witness and document the scene. So as the campus police doused the peaceful protesters, there was heart-breaking audio:

"Don't do it! Don't do it!"

"Do you have children?" a young man asked the cop as he sprayed students in the face with the blinding chemical pepper.

"Your children would be ashamed of you!" a young woman cried out.

And the uncut video showed the faces of the police as they stood by, refusing to help when students screamed out in pain, rubbing their eyes, coughing. It was so counter-intuitive to see these public servants causing the harm, not rescuing us. And their faces were not stoic masks. Some of the police looked very confused, even ashamed.

"Shame on you!" the crowd began chanting. "You can go!"

And the campus police began retreating slowly. There is no winning here in the video. But there is something quite profound and ground-breaking: The role of the citizen witness. Our sixties generation had no technology to document our revolution. We had to rely upon the mainstream media with its censors, editors, and gate-keepers to report on any protest.

Today's young are so media and tech-savvy that everyone with a smart phone is a reporter and a witness. The Internet's egalitarian social media has replaced the top-down reporting. YouTube can spark revolutions and organize protests. A wall of policemen is so 20th century with it show of force and dictatorial power. The 21st century is about relationship, not top-down authority. It's why all over the world dictators are falling.

It's why the big banks and crooked Wall Street brokers who have for so long dictated our finances, will also fall to the nimble and outraged young they have disenfranchised. One simple rule that every old animal knows is that at some point you must cede your power to the young. With their phones held high like antennae broadcasting to the whole world, our young people will not let us keep stealing from their future. They are watching us and witnessing.

"Do you have children?" they cry out.

And we must answer, yes. You are our children. It is our responsibility to leave you a better world.~

Brenda Peterson is the author of 16 books, including the memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was named as among "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of the 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor. For more: www.IWanttoBeLeftBehind.com.