The pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis, which has so far led only to two police officers being placed on administrative leave and one chancellor shamed by her students as she walked to her car, is sadly indicative of how we treat a certain type of peaceful protester in this country. That has been made extremely clear by the Occupy movement. Other uses of riot police, sound cannons, and other crowd control devices have occurred at large-scale events like political conventions or G-20 summits or assemblies where security could at least have the pretension of justifying a counter-terrorism approach. There are elected officials from around the country and around the world there, after all, and Al Qaeda would love to use this high-profile stage for an attack. Or so the story goes.
But these are students, or ordinary Americans, expressing their Constitutional right to dissent, usually in a public space, who are suffering assaults at the hands of the state. And what happened at UC-Davis has happened with depressing regularity to all of these students and protesters. Pepper spray, tear gas, concussion grenades and batons have been the weapons law enforcement has used to protect the seats of power and privilege. The official response from power and privilege, articulated well by Newt Gingrich over the weekend, is that the protesters should take a bath and get a job. After they’ve been coerced into submission by the state, that is.
I’ve seen some very good takes on all of this, including from Peter Moskos, Alexis Madrigal and Glenn Greenwald. But let me go in a slightly different direction. I was catching up on my Daily Show watching, and last week he had on Leymah Gbowee. She is a Liberian activist, and a recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She also happens to be totally charming and delightful. Do you know why she received the Nobel Peace Prize? She led a protest movement in Liberia against civil war and human rights abuses. Specifically, she and her fellow activists sat down in a soccer field near the Presidential palace in Monrovia and refused to move until they secured a meeting with the President, Charles Taylor. They eventually succeeded. “Imagine taking over the Capitol building,” Gbowee said. “And I think sometimes Americans need to do that, given the state of your nation.”
In other words, she Occupied Liberia. And the reward that people across the world give for that is the Nobel Peace Prize. The reward that people get in America for that is pepper spray.
There’s a bit more similarity globally in the student movement on college campuses, which in large part is about the right to afford a college education. As Mike Konczal points out, this has been brewing for years on campus, not only in America but all around the world. Protesters in Chile, Puerto Rico, Canada and the UK have also seen violent counter-attacks from police. I guess snotty college kids are disrespected everywhere you go.
But the spectacle of seeing this Liberian activist, rightly lauded for her persistence and voice of dissent, amid this time when Americans are being brutalized for doing the exact same thing creates a jarring juxtaposition.