California Forum

Impact of pepper-spray incident on two students

On Nov. 18, 2011, University of California, Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school’s quad.
On Nov. 18, 2011, University of California, Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school’s quad. Davis Enterprise file

Ian Lee was a teenage freshman at his first protest when he was pepper-sprayed at UC Davis in 2011.

He was one of the kids sitting on the sidewalk in the photos.

People were yelling, “You don’t have to do this,” when Lt. John Pike, a campus police officer, methodically blasted his eyes with the military-grade chemical.

Lee remembers panic and pain, and that his face felt like it was on fire.

Tom Zolot was a senior standing nearby on the quad that day “advocating for a more just world and not willing to leave until we got it,” he said. He was hit with the aerosol as well.

Neither was surprised to learn that the university tried to bury mention of the incident on the Internet.

But neither is happy about it, either – because that assault isn’t just the history of the school or Chancellor Linda P.B.Katehi, it’s their history, too.

“It’s a personal thing … it bothers me,” Lee said.

When he heard about it, Zolot felt a combination of “rage with righteousness,” before settling on “indignation.”

Both said, directly or indirectly, that experience set them on the course to where they are now.

Lee is a union organizer, and said the incident “changed his life” and made him realize “the broader struggle” of social justice.

Zolot works in a juvenile restorative justice program in New Orleans, helping offenders take responsibility for their mistakes.

So it was a powerful moment, and attempting to hide it – whether that decision was made with Katehi’s involvement or done solely by subordinates as she told the Bee editorial board last week – adds more injury.

Both said Katehi is just a symptom of a larger problem in the University of California system, a push toward what they describe as “privatization” that made them feel like afterthoughts as students.

“She was hired to run it like a business,” Zolot said.

There’s something to that. Budget cuts and increasing demands push all our chancellors to think like CEOs instead of public servants.

I interviewed Katehi last year for a profile. She’s smart and ambitious – a laudable trait until it’s not. She has the personal history to understand the price of repression, and I doubt she thinks it’s $175,000, the amount she’s spent on consultants to remove online references to the pepper-spray incident.

As an 18-year-old, she witnessed the Athens Polytechnic student uprising of 1973, when Greece’s fascist government sent tanks through the university gates while snipers shot protesters.

I wonder what she’d say if the Greek government ran a Web campaign to bury that student protest?

On Monday, Katehi released a statement that reads in part that “none of our communications efforts were intended – or attempted – to erase online content or rewrite history,” but that the move was necessary “because of the importance of philanthropy” to the school and the “need to make sure those searching for information … get a complete picture.”

That seems disingenuous, especially since one contract, posted on The Sacramento Bee’s website, makes the promise to “clean up the negative attention” received not just by the school, but by Katehi personally.

“She is thinking of herself,” Zolot said.

Even in the scrum of the moment back then, few of us defined Davis by the pepper-spray incident, and it’s tough to imagine it would deter future students from attending, or ding Katehi’s fundraising. Two years after it happened, when the first contract was signed, it was already receding as a problem.

So Katehi, or those who acted on her behalf, passed a boundary between aspiration and hubris when they decided to try to bury this from Internet search results.

Did Katehi pause to think how Zolot, Lee and others who took part in those events would feel to have them obscured to serve her purposes?

Maybe. But they did it anyway.

Anita Chabria is a regular freelance contributor who lives in Sacramento. Contact her at