Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Ugly Face of Austerity: Pepper Spraying the Other

The image of a UC police officer using a weapon with indifference on prone students may become the iconic image of the Age of Austerity. This scene, which went viral on the Internet, tells us much about our current political and economic moment: young people protesting the decreased support from the state are treated with brutality and indifference.

In reading the recently released report on the UC pepper spraying "incident," I was struck by two reoccurring themes: the university administrators and police wanted to see the student protesters as outside elements, and they sought to protect their imagined daughters from sex. This underlying paranoid fantasy is brought to the surface in several moments in the report. For instance, "The administration did not consider the Occupy movement encampment to be a conventional campus protest. The Leadership Team appeared to perceive it as a vehicle through which non-affiliates might enter the campus and endanger students." We can read the term "non-affiliates" as shorthand for dangerous, unspecified Others, and as the report relates, the central irrational fear of the administration appeared to be that these dangerous Others would violate “young girls”: "“We were worried at the time about that [nonaffiliates] because the issues from Oakland were in the news and the use of drugs and sex and other things, and you know here we have very young students . . . we were worried especially about having very young girls and other students with older people who come from the outside without any knowledge of their record . . . if anything happens to any student while we’re in violation of policy, it’s a very tough thing to overcome.” Representing college students as "young girls" and protesters as dangerous sexualized Others serves to justify a violent reaction by a protective, paternalistic institution.

Of course, this cultural fantasy of the unknown Other violating “young girls” was often used in the American South to justify the lynching of African Americans because of their threat to white female purity. In fact the sexualization of Others has historically helped Christian invaders to justify brutalizing and dehumanizing native people; however, if you think I am reading too much into the passage from the report cited above, let us ponder the following statement: "Vice Chancellor Meyer expressed similar concerns in an interview conducted on Dec. 7. He explained, “our context at the time was seeing what’s happening in the City of Oakland, seeing what’s happening in other municipalities across the country, and not
being able to see a scenario where [a UC Davis Occupation] ends well . . . Do we lose control and have non-affiliates become part of an encampment? So my fear is a longterm occupation with a number of tents where we have an undergraduate student and a non-affiliate and there’s an incident. And then I’m reporting to a parent that a nonaffiliate has done this unthinkable act with your daughter, and how could we let that happen?”" Once again, in this cultural fantasy, the administration sees itself as protecting the purity of its daughters by eliminating the threat posed by a violating Other.

Why it is important to understand this underlying fantasy is that it helps us to understand how the administration could see its own students as threatening outsiders intent on corrupting their own precious purity. From this perspective, Lt. Pike was not simply protecting public safety; rather, he was following the administration's lead by trying to eliminate the Other from the space of the same. I use these abstract terms to point to the underlying psychology behind austerity politics in California: Just as the Other (brown and black students) started to enter into our higher education system, a tax revolt resulted in the defunding of public universities. Moreover, as our public schools become increasingly self-segregated, austerity becomes color-coded. Older and Whiter Californians simply do not want to share their wealth in order to support the education of young people of color.

While we have been socialized not to talk about race and to keep our prejudices indirect and coded, it is clear that even though the police at UC Davis knew they were looking at UC Davis students, what they saw were wild outsiders threatening to violate their daughters. Only serious and committed education can help us to overcome these collective cultural fantasies that at once dehumanize some students and purify others.

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