Exceptional Brutality: Police Violence on Campus
by David J. Leonard and James Braxton Peterson | NewBlackMan
Like many, we have been outraged by recent episodes of police violence at UC Berkeley and UC Davis in recent weeks. The sight of police officers brutalizing men and women with batons and pepper spray is antithetical to justice. Yet, we have also become increasingly uncomfortable with the public discourse, one that has given an inordinate amount of attention to these instances, treating them as unique and exceptional rather than indicative of systemic state-sanctioned violence. The overall tone of shock works from an idea that police violence should not happen on American college campuses. But in the absence of a similar level of outrage resulting from police violence in urban communities throughout the United States we are left wondering about the dangers in this exceptional discourse. For example, in her otherwise powerful call for leadership, Cathy Davidson asks, “How could this be happening at Davis—and at other campuses too? Why are students who are peaceably protesting being treated like criminals?” Rather than asking how could this happen at college campuses, shouldn’t we be asking how could this happen anywhere? How can any person be subjected to repression, violence, and instruments of dehumanization? A discourse that imagines police violence, whether bully-club justice or pepper spray, as proper when dealing with criminals rather than students gives us pause because of its inability to advance justice for all.
Similarly Bob Ostertag, in “Militarization Of Campus Police,” furthers the denunciation of the violence at UC Davis through the systematic juxtaposition of students from real-criminals.
And regulations prohibit the use of pepper spray on inmates in all circumstances other than the immediate threat of violence. If a prisoner is seated, by definition the use of pepper spray is prohibited. Any prison guard who used pepper spray on a seated prisoner would face immediate disciplinary review for the use of excessive force. Even in the case of a prison riot in which inmates use extreme violence, once a prisoner sits down he or she is not considered to be an imminent threat. And if prison guards go into a situation where the use of pepper spray is considered likely, they are required to have medical personnel nearby to treat the victims of the chemical agent.
Apparently, in the state of California felons incarcerated for violent crimes have rights that students at public universities do not.
Beyond the establishment of a binary that situates students in an oppositional relationship to felons, the logic here leads one to conclude that students are subjected to more state violence than those subjected to incarceration within the Prison Industrial Complex. Worse yet, if anyone should be subjected to pepper stray, it should be felons who within the national imagination are both undesirable and dangerous, unworthy and suspect. In yet another layer of news media irony, these recent displays of brutal and inhumane police force reaffirm the reluctance of black, brown, and poor folk to enter into the Occupy movement in the first place. The specter of police brutality haunts poor, black, and brown communities. Students’ experiences – with this commonly experienced interface between citizens and those charged with protecting citizens – garner lead-story status while daily victims struggle to find any modicum of public support, or media coverage, much less – justice.
The sentiment of exceptionalism is not limited to the public reaction to police violence at UC Davis. It was equally evident in the wake of police brutally attacking members of Occupy Berkeley as part of their efforts to disperse the group and remove tents. Prompting widespread condemnation from the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild, from various national commentators including Stephen Colbert, the police violence against Berkeley students elicited a disproportionate level of attention. In our estimation, the attention and the rhetorical tone reflects the presumed exceptionalism of these instances and the presumed innocence and humanity reserved for students.
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