A town where cops callously pepper-spray students is not the city I know and love

My hometown, Davis, California, has made national news before, usually for something weird, wonderful, or both. In 1994, there was the snoring woman who was cited for violating the city’s noise pollution ordinance. Five years later, Stephen Colbert did a segment for The Daily Show on the tunnels Davis's mayor had built so migrating toads wouldn’t have to cross a busy road.

Davis is often cited as one of America's most bike-friendly communities (the city’s logo is an old-school penny-farthing) and in 2009, it became home to the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame. Its farmer's market won a national award that year as well. On the west side of town, where all the streets bear names from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a Davis resident has been trying to build flying cars for decades.

I live in Los Angeles now, but I’m proud of my hometown’s quirks. Many things that seemed eccentric in the 1980s and 1990s - electric cars, fresh, local food, bike-friendly streets - are urban aspirations today. Davis was ahead of the curve.

Last Friday, when I read that America’s largest energy-neutral housing project had just opened in Davis, I sent out a proud tweet (Davis, CA, leading the charge) and closed my laptop, wondering if the town’s latest small victory would matter to anyone influential.

A few hours later, when I opened my computer again, Davis was everywhere. The video of Lieutenant John Pike nonchalantly pepper spraying seated student protesters had spread like sticky capsicum. You know a piece of media is in the middle of a genuine Gladwellian tipping point when six unconnected Facebook friends all share it within an hour. By Saturday, the pepper spray incident was all over.

So Davis was in the news again, but this time for police brutality. The images from the pepper spray incident have quickly become icons for the Occupy movement, and UC Davis has become Exhibit A for the case that society is broken. This was not the town I knew.

I flew up to Davis to visit my parents for Thanksgiving and spent two days visiting the student occupiers, talking to residents, reading the local newspaper, and also, of course, keeping abreast of the conversation on Twitter.

When I first visited the student camp, on Monday, I was struck by how peaceful and organized it was. People were split up into small groups, quietly talking, eating and playing music. Having read tweets comparing the UC Davis quad to Tahrir Square, I was expecting, I suppose, an atmosphere of high anxiety.

I spoke with two protesters who had attended a number of Occupy events in Northern California and liked the UC Davis group because it had a "good vibe." The Sacramento Occupy group, they said, was "too negative." I asked another protester, Andres Estabanez, whether he thought the pepper spray incident would change how the campus police dealt with protesters. "Oh, I’m sure," he says. "I doubt they’re going to come in here and use brutal violence again."

A handful of volunteers were building a large geodesic dome next to the cluster of tents. Was there some strategic purpose for the dome? I asked. Would it make the quad harder to raid next time? "Yeah, 'strategic,'" the volunteer replied, chuckling ironically. "No, I think it was just an idea that happened. People needed a place to sleep."

UC Davis, in other words, does not feel like a war zone.

The students in the encampment are upset about the pepper spray incident, and most support calls for Chancellor Linda Katehi’s resignation, but there isn’t much palpable rage. They seem to regard the pepper spray incident as a shocking and unacceptable use of force, but still welcome - or demand, even - an open dialogue with the university administration. Their composure and creativity was on powerful display in the second video from Occupy Davis to go viral: an indelible clip of a protest in which hundreds of students silently line Katehi’s path as she walks to her car after a press conference.

On Tuesday afternoon, Chancellor Katehi arrived unannounced during the protesters' "general assembly" meeting. Because a speech from her wasn't on the protesters’ agenda, she waited respectfully while they debated whether it should be modified to accommodate her schedule. (She had to leave before a decision was reached.)

Within the larger university community, the incident has sparked a frank and serious discussion about Katehi's future, as well as other matters. A statement on the homepage for the UC Davis Department of English calls both for Katehi's resignation and the disbanding of the University of California Police Department. There aren’t many organizations in which you can publicly call for your boss's resignation on an institutional website. An email circulating among History Department faculty suggests that students and professors join forces to tackle issues facing the university - including tuition hikes - that the administration seems unmotivated to address.

Katehi has so far showed no willingness to step down, and the larger issues that inspired the UCD protests - tuition hikes and the university’s increasing reliance on corporate sponsorship - may be beyond the scope of her power to fix anyway.

But in the wake of the pepper spray incident, all ten UC chancellors are meeting with University of California President Mark G. Yudof to discuss changes to campus police policy. We can expect UC Police to be much more careful with the use of force in the future. Meanwhile, new standards for communication are being established between the administration and student protesters, and new forms of student-faculty cooperation might emerge as a result of these demonstrations.

I was worried Davis’s fundamental character had somehow changed. It hasn't. People are still idealistic, agitating for change, yet oddly reasonable and low-key. It’s unfortunate that my hometown is on a national stage for a police brutality scandal, but I’m proud of the community’s response.

Oh, and the town also has some great new energy-neutral housing.

Photo credit: Max Whittaker/Reuters

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