At 5pm yesterday, as my family and I left Davis so that I could attend the American Academy of Religion annual meetings in San Francisco, I received a call from Assistant Vice Chancellor Griselda Castro informing me that she, Chancellor Katehi and others were trapped inside Surge II. She asked if I could mediate between students and administration. I was reluctant; I had already missed a piece of the meetings due to commitments in Davis and didn’t want to miss any more. I called a student (intentionally not named here) and learned that students were surrounding the building but had committed to a peaceful, silent exit for those inside and had created a clear walkway to the street. We turned the car around and headed back to Davis.
When I arrived, there was a walkway out of the building set up, lined on both sides by about 300 students. The students were organized and peaceful. I was cleared to enter the building along with a student who is a part of CA House and has been part of the Occupy movement on campus since the beginning. He, too, was reluctant, but not because he had somewhere else to be. For any student to act as a spokesperson or leader is inconsistent with the ethos the Occupy movement. He entered as an individual seeking peace and resolution, not as a representative of the students, and was clear that he had called for and would continue to call for Chancellor Katehi’s resignation.
Once inside, and through over an hour of conversation, we learned the following:
- The Chancellor had made a commitment that police would not be called in this situation
- Though the message had been received inside the building that students were offering a peaceful exit, there was a concern that not everyone would hold to this commitment
- The Chancellor had committed to talk with students personally and respond to concerns at the rally on Monday on the quad
- The student assistants to the Chancellor had organized another forum on Tuesday for the Chancellor to dialogue directly with students
What we felt couldn’t be compromised on was the students’ desire to see and be seen by the Chancellor. Any exit without face to face contact was unacceptable. She was willing to do this. We reached agreement that the students would move to one side of the walkway and sit down as a show of commitment to nonviolence.
Before we left, the Chancellor was asked to view a video of the student who was with me being pepper sprayed. She immediately agreed. Then, he and I witnessed her witnessing eight minutes of the violence that occurred Friday. Like a recurring nightmare, the horrific scene and the cries of “You don’t have to do this!” and students choking and screaming rolled again. The student and I then left the building and using the human mike, students were informed that a request had been made that they move to one side and sit down so that the Chancellor could exit. They immediately complied, though I believe she could have left peacefully even without this concession.
I returned to the building and walked with the Chancellor down the human walkway to her car. Students remained silent and seated the entire way.
What was clear to me was that once again, the students’ willingness to show restraint kept us from spiraling into a cycle of violence upon violence. There was no credible threat to the Chancellor, only a perceived one. The situation was not hostile. And what was also clear to me is that whether they admit it or not, the administrators that were inside the building are afraid. And exhausted. And human. And the suffering that has been inflicted is real. The pain present as the three of us watched the video of students being pepper sprayed was palpable. A society is only truly free when all persons take responsibility for their actions; it is only upon taking responsibility that healing can come.
Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car? Because I believe in the humanity of all persons. Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid. Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek. I am well aware that my actions were looked on with suspicion by some tonight, but I trust that those seeking a nonviolent solution will know that “just means lead to just ends” and my actions offered dignity not harm.
The Chancellor was not trapped in Surge II tonight, but, in a larger sense, we are all in danger of being trapped. We are trapped when we assent to a culture that for decades, and particularly since 9/11, has allowed law enforcement to have more and more power which has moved us into an era of hypercriminalization. We are trapped when we envision no path to reconciliation. And we are trapped when we forget our own power. The students at UC Davis are to be commended for resisting that entrapment, using their own power nonviolently. I pray that the Chancellor will remember her own considerable power in making change on our campus, and in seeking healing and reconciliation.