What is remarkable here is less the error of zeal than the sin of ignorance. Violence is an ineffective response to nonviolent protest, a fan to the flames of community unrest. Those of us who teach the history of the US in the 1960s know this; Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in the nonviolent Civil Rights movement understood how to capitalize on the pigheaded stupidity of the policemen they faced. Eugene “Bull” Connor, police chief of Birmingham, used fire hoses and Alsatians against nonviolent protesters, including schoolchildren and college students; Jim Clark, the sheriff at Selma, used tear-gas and billy clubs. Their names we know, for these characters are inextricable from major Civil Rights victories: they helped create the indelible images that shocked the world and fostered lasting change in America.I'd agree with most of that, but with one big qualification. Specifically, violence is not always an ineffective response to nonviolent protest. It's half-hearted, diffident violence that creates the problem. We don't get too upset about the Hama massacre (remember?) because its destruction and savagery were effectively complete, killing 10-40,000 citizens, mostly civilians, and driving the few rebellious survivors into hiding. The British never had the courage of their convictions against Gandhi, nor even Deng Zhaoping at Tiananmen Square. I'm tempted to say that not even Bull Connor or Jim Clark had their heart in it; but maybe they did have their heart in it, while finding themselves constrained by those around them.
The most important thing about the Davis pepper spray is that it has given a whole new lease on life to the "occupy" protest movement. Others have noted that the structure and strategy of the movement has been extremely shaky. Of course everyone is--well, 99 percent are--steaming mad at the big banks, but nobody knows quite what to do about it, and the occupiers have never figured out a real answer (for a fuller account, read Michael O'Hare's superb "The Dog that Caught the Car"). A friend who shall remain nameless was saying as late as Thursday night that the New York cops probably did the occupiers a favor by removing them from Zuccotti Park: the cops gave the occupiers a way out, a moment of closure to a movement that had no obvious endgame. Ten seconds of UCD pepper spray certainly put paid to that scenario; we'll be watching that video until--well, at least until the next outrage, maybe longer if the next is no worse.
Read Yves Smith's running commentary on the video and you come away agreeing that the demonstrators "displayed remarkable ingenuity" and that they "won." As to larger question of the University's response, Yves asks: stupid or evil? Yves votes for evil but I vote for stupid. I can't imagine that any Chancellor, foreseeing what so inevitably came to pass, would have said, "sure, go ahead and rough 'em up a bit." Far more likely: "oh, Jesusmaryandjoseph, use pepper spray and we'll never hear the end of it. DO NOT USE PEPPER SPRAY. REPEAT, DO NOT USE PEPPER SPRAY" One may be tempted to forgive the Chancellor, saying, well, this was an off-the-chart unusual situation and you can't expect her to anticipate everything. But anticipating the unexpectable is just exactly what you want of a Chancellor (or, indeed, any CEO). Any of a thousand people can shuffle the paper on a day to day basis. The reason you pay a CEO the bucks is precisely to make sure that you never become the focus of a viral video.
*Apologies; I see now that it is is Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway.