The police response to the UC Davis protests is rapidly becoming an issue on which it’s only acceptable to take one side.
I’ve watched the pepper spray video over and over. The first time you see it, you do find yourself holding your breath, hand over your mouth. Many people have talked about watching it in tears, and I was one. I’ve read the commentary, I’ve followed the outrage on Twitter, I’ve shown the video to my daughters who, for reasons best known to their Australian selves, are currently dreaming of attending college in the United States. (That latter day Nancy Drew, Veronica Mars has a certain amount to do with this.)
Yes, it’s horrifying. Yes, like many parents and college teachers familiar with the kinds of brave, imaginative young people who bother to engage in campus protests, I believe this excessive confrontation should have been avoided. I want them all to be safer.
But I’m also starting to want some kind of safety to extend to the much smaller group of young and recently young professionals seen in the video, the ones wearing the uniforms and the helmets. The problem is that when thinking about these cops, and the senior figures who authorised their deployment, demonisation is cheap and easy. More than that, it seems to be becoming compulsory; to do otherwise is to risk being compared with an apologist for Eichmann.
So now from behind the safety of the internet’s vast perspex shield, we’re all surging against them, along with the crowd on the day, who converted disorganised screaming panic into coherent, videogenic protest. Shame on you, we whisper, suddenly feeling ourselves part of a grand global belonging to something good, at last. Not on my watch. Not in my name.
But I think we’re letting ourselves off lightly when we do this. To understand how all this happened, we do have to ask harder questions, not only about the policy reframing of police action in particular contexts, but about the much more ordinary sequence of decisions that causes anyone to sign up for a particular job, and then to stay in it, knowing that the rules and codes of behaviour are what they are.
The world’s attention has been focused on the face and demeanour (and now the salary) of Officer Pike, wielding the pepper spray like a bug gun, but what brought each of his colleagues to that point where their collective and individual efforts in that awful situation felt appropriate, inevitable, even wise? How did each of them get caught up in this profound miscalculation, suddenly and so decisively on the wrong side of our global, chanting crowd?
American poet Sharon Olds, prompted by the endless re-runs of the Challenger shuttle disaster—and the similarly replayed footage of Christa McAuliffe’s parents in the crowd gradually comprehending what had just happened in the skies in front of them—wrote beautifully of her wish to rewind that tape, to sort out all the elements of the catastrophe and send them back to where they came from:
Pull that rocket
surely to earth, open the hatch
and draw them out like fresh-born creatures,
sort them out, family by family, go
away, disperse, do not meet here.
(‘For and Against Knowledge’, for Christa McAuliffe)
This anguish about the irreversibility of choice interacting with chance haunts the actuality footage from any just-before moment. Look, there’s Mohammed Atta passing through airport security. Why does no one notice him? Why can’t this day be unwound? Look, there’s Jamie Bulger walking through the mall, reaching up to hold hands with a boy who is about to kill him. Why can’t we pull them both back to safety?
The person I keep wanting to rescue from the UC Davis video is the cop who’s not wearing a helmet, who’s standing a little back from the action. He’s unaware of the global PR catastrophe that is about to envelope him and his colleagues; he’s just at work, managing a crowd, joking with a cameraman, keeping calm, more or less remembering his manners, doing his job. Who knows what he’s thinking really? Well, it seems, we all do. And now he knows what the whole world thinks of him, his career choice, the professional ethics of anyone wearing his uniform.
Marc Bousquet also believes that we should think about the turning points that cause someone to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that we should justly identify ourselves with those whose judgment saves them from moral calamity:
At most of the forks in our road, most of us choose the brave and difficult path. Every day, hundreds of millions of us refuse invitations to be Eichmann. We refuse to be exploiters and thugs, or their attorneys and lower managers. That’s why democracy works better than hierarchy, and that, among imperfect social organizations, more democratic generally works better than less democratic.
Thankfully he also admits that our everyday refusals are limited and partial. We can always do better. So as we struggle to help imperfect social organizations under exceptional stress become more rather than less democratic, we need to speak a little more clearly about the fact that universities are also filling up to the brim with processes that emphasise the virtue of compliance: unexceptional, reliable, pragmatic, without fuss, for reward. We’re rarely encouraged to act according to our own ethical compass; far from it, we’re trained to align our values with quality management strategies that claim the privilege of fair play and equity.
The campus culture of creating and following orders (let’s call this policy implementation) is starting to seem like a defining problem for universities. Our external obligations mean that we must be able to say what we’re doing with public money and this involves sector-wide standards for everything; our internal mission is based on the belief that the capacity to exercise independent judgment is critical to both innovation and expertise. The tension between these could resolve either way, but at the moment the pendulum is swinging in favour of the systemic relinquishing of personal judgment; we have more or less gone along with this because, it seems, we have accepted the proposition that we make universities better, safer places when we do.
So we’re right to be appalled by police brutality wherever it occurs—just not necessarily on the grounds that someone else’s standard operating procedures represent an exceptional collusion with hierarchical thinking that we would not contemplate for ourselves.