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December 8, 2011


envelopeDenounce police violence at UC-Davis

To the editor:

[The following letter refers to violent incidents several weeks ago at multiple campuses of the University of California. The story continues to develop in complex ways, but it is still timely for the University of Pittsburgh community to respond.]

On Nov. 18, 2011, campus police at the University of California-Davis attacked peaceful, nonviolent student Occupy protesters with military-grade pepper spray. The students were seated and in a plainly nonaggressive posture before and during the attack. Videos of the incident are everywhere on the Internet, and the multiple perspectives show beyond doubt that the police officers were not threatened at any time.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in 2002 that use of pepper spray against passive protesters was unreasonable use of force, and that police therefore have no immunity from criminal prosecution and/or civil action. One ethicist has pointed out that in the UC-Davis incident, the police seemed to be aiming to punish rather than to induce compliance with minimum risk to all concerned.

Ironically, the UC-Davis students were there (in part) to protest police violence against students and faculty at the Berkeley campus the preceding week, the third incident in two years. Chancellor Linda Katehi at UC-Davis immediately issued an anodyne statement invoking vague “safety” concerns as justification for the attack. Notably, she tried to use the presence of non-students among the protesters as further justification. She first characterized the incident as merely “troubling.”

Within days, over 100,000 signatures appeared on online petitions demanding Chancellor Katehi’s resignation. The first sign of incipient shame was that the university deleted from its web home page the slogan “A community that embraces civility.” The UC-Davis faculties of the English and physics departments denounced the police violence. Later, the officer who had sprayed the students and the chief of UC-Davis police were placed on administrative leave. Chancellor Katehi has since apologized to students publicly, yet she maintains, “I do not think that I violated the policies of the institution.”  How can any educator believe that “policy” is an acceptable excuse for a morally repugnant act?

On the other side, the UC-Berkeley Police Officers Association issued a statement saying, “It was not our decision to engage campus protesters. We are now faced with ‘managing’ the results of years of poor budget planning.”  Translation: ‘Just following orders….”

I invite the faculty, staff, students and administration of the University of Pittsburgh to join me in denouncing this senseless and illegal act in any way you can find. Some Yale faculty have mounted a letter to chancellors and presidents of all American colleges & universities, asking that they use campus police to protect peaceful protest on their campuses (

University-sponsored violence against nonviolent protesters — no matter who they are or what their cause — is inconsistent with the mutual respect required for an educational mission. As members of a national and international community dedicated to true civility and freedom of inquiry and expression, we ignore this vicious act at our own peril.

Lewis Jacobson


Biological Sciences


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