The turning point: The moral example of UC Davis students, and Occupy Wall Street

The video is shocking. (See it here.) A line of students sits on the ground, heads bowed. A police officer dressed in riot gear walks up to them, holding a pepper spray gun. He theatrically raises his arm, as if about to carry out an execution, and presses the trigger. A foul-looking orange spray shoots out.

Methodically, deliberately, he walks to the end of the line, saturating each student. He might as well be casually spraying bug spray. When he reaches the end he begins walking back in the other direction, spraying each of them again. The students huddle in obvious pain. People in the crowd nearby gasp in shock and began chanting, “Shame on you! Shame on you! Shame on you!”

This event is powerfully symbolic. It is about contempt from those in power and the wanton use of force against the powerless.

We have seen similar things over and over again in the past few years. We have seen it in banks lobbying for public handouts and then denying relief to millions of exploited homeowners. We have seen it in tax breaks and bonuses for the rich while millions of Americans are out of work. We have seen it in church and university officers abusing children and then covering it up. We have seen it in the censorship of climate science performed in the public interest. We have seen it in the absurd declaration that corporations are “people” and entitled to spend billions of dollars to elect representatives that they will then own. We have seen it everywhere we turn.

The police officer is Congress. Our banks. Our clerics.

The students are us.

If I had to sum up the attitude of America’s governing classes in one word, I would say: contempt.

We are seeing the beginning of a worldwide movement to fight for dignity and intelligent, collective governance. It is remarkable, the parallels between what we see in Tunisia, in Cairo, in Rome, in Zucotti Park, in Oakland, California, and now at UC Davis.

It is time for UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi to resign. I simply cannot fathom a university administrator bringing riot police onto campus to assault peacefully demonstrating students. At the most, campus police could have simply carried them away. In her blog, Duke prof (and former teacher of mine) Cathy Davidson deftly dissects the craven claim that tent camps present “health and safety concerns.” And Bob Ostertag, a UC Davis prof, shows how the administration lost its moral compass.

People say that the Occupy movement has not been clear in its demands. I would say that their demands could not be more obvious.

They are already being articulated everywhere: the New York Times, the Huffington Post,, the New Yorker. They are full of luminous writers: Nicholas Kristof. Paul Krugman. Gail Collins. Hendrik Herztberg. George Packer. Steve Coll. Dozens of intelligent books have appeared on the shelves in the past few years, examining the country’s failures and offering thoughtful proposals for reform.

They want a fairer tax system. They want a sane energy policy that addresses climate change and searches for cleaner ways to power our civilization. They want a government that is not wholly owned by the rich. They want access to justice and education. They want a reasonable hope of getting and keeping a job that gives them a living wage and the ability to invest for the future.

They want a rational health care system that they can afford. They want government policy that is driven by thoughtful attention to rational research, not ideology. They want a transparent government that holds the powerful accountable. They want a government that understands the importance of investing now in human capital and infrastructure.

The obstacles to reform seem overwhelming. The country’s far right has systematically obstructed every attempt to change things for the better. The electorate seems hopelessly divided. For decades, it has voted to create legislative deadlock. Despite the overwhelming failure of the Bush administration, half of the country has not grasped how utterly the Republican philosophy of governance has been discredited. The Democrats are uncoordinated and have no coherent philosophy at all. In our Internet age, the media are so fragmented that no single idea can seem to hold the country’s attention for long. America has never seemed more divided and paralyzed in living memory.

Nonetheless, America’s two most famous recent political movements – the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street – have taught us several things. It is possible to get the country’s attention. And getting its attention is equivalent to setting its agenda.

The Tea Party, which is now fading fast, was always a faux movement, funded by secretive billionaires and so aggressively, laughably ignorant that neither it nor its candidates could retain credibility for long.

But Occupy Wall Street is much more broadly based. It has a large and powerful set of progressive ideas to draw upon. And it is getting the country’s attention.

What Occupy Wall Street needs to do is set a moral example. Moral examples move people to action. I am very proud of the students at UC Davis, both the ones who remained seated, heads down, and the ones in the crowd surrounding them. They vastly outnumbered the police officers. They could have torn them apart. I have no doubt that many of them wanted to. I wanted to.

But, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King so well understood, nonviolent resistance is extraordinarily powerful. It shows who holds the moral high ground. It reveals the thugs and bullies in high places for who they are. It creates sympathy and evokes principled action. It clears the way for thoughtful men and women of conscience and character to speak out for rational courses of action.

I think we have just reached a turning point.

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