My daughter Anna will be entering college next fall. I’m both excited and terrified for her and her friends. Who’s to assure us parents that our children won’t encounter a campus security officer like Lieutenant John Pike of the University of California at Davis?
By now many of us have seen the picture of Lt. Pike dressed in riot gear, looking more like a parody of law enforcement as he mindlessly douses a line of innocent kids with pepper spray. He’s as nonchalant as if he were spraying weed poison in his garden. The first time I saw the picture, I was sure that it was photo-shopped.
“Protect your eyes,” a student is screaming in the eight-minute video that shows young protestors sitting peacefully on the ground, with arms crossed as Pike brandishes his canister. Not content to go down the line once, the lieutenant makes sure that those who covered their faces were sprayed under their shirts. According to Time magazine, one student couldn’t stop vomiting after his mouth was targeted.
A UC-Davis campus police officer uses pepper spray on students.
I think the photograph of this trigger-happy campus cop will be one of the iconic photographs of my children’s generation.
My 14-year-old son insists that what happened at UCDavis, as unnecessary and nasty as it was, doesn’t have the gravitas of the picture of a lone student facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square.
“But the police were going up and down a line and drenching pepper-spray on people’s constitutional rights,” I pointed out. “You’re taking this very hard,” Adam replied.
Here is another lesson I’ve gleaned from the UC-Davis debacle: My children have different political opinions than I have. At the dinner table we talk about how the UC students were inspired by the same tactics as the Occupy Wall Street movement. The students at Davis pitched tents on their campus to protest tuition increases. They weren’t objecting to one policy, but were occupying their university quad to promote equitable, lasting change at their school. Both my kids have said they don’t understand the goals of Occupy Wall Street. Adam, who has apparently talked about this with his buddies at school, said OWS is a non-starter. “There’s no rallying point like the war or women’s rights,” said my son, a student of history.
The other day we passed the Greenway in Boston and saw OWS’ tent city for the first time. “They’re asking people to call pizza places in the area to deliver food, and they need warm socks,” I announced. In an ever-increasing mother and child reversal, Adam said, “Oh, Mom. When the police use infrared light at night, no one needs socks because no one is inside those tents.”
Adam, the hard-hitting realist, thinks that OWS is a big waste of time. And he’s not impressed with the diffuseness of the “I’m mad as hell and not going to take this anymore” vibe of the movement. I read Howard Beal’s soliloquy – “I’m Mad as Hell” – from the 1976 movie “Network” to Adam for his opinion:
I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street.
All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.
You’ve gotta say, ‘I’m a human being...! My life has value!’
So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell,
‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’
Adam isn’t bothered that not much has changed in 35 years. And he thinks the smoldering Buffalo Springfield lyrics running through my head like news ticker tape are quaint, and even a little vague. “There’s something happening here ...”. Neither of my kids plug into that ’60s sound track.
Maybe I am the cock-eyed optimist my kids think I am. But UC students building up to a crescendo as they chant “Shame on you, Shame on you, Shame on you” to numb robotic security police chokes me up. It’s not such a big leap for me to see Anna protesting on campus for her support of Israel. I can imagine her outraged over a tuition increase or an unfair wage for the people that serve food or scrub her bathroom. And now, after the Davis incident, I can also see her pepper-sprayed, and I can feel her eyes burning. And for all that I’m more scared as hell than I am mad.
Keep on repairing the world, kids. But please, be careful out there.