Protest criminalised at the "pepper spray" university

An open letter to Yolo County.

Sometime in July, in a court in Yolo County, California, eleven students and one professor at the University of California Davis will stand trial, accused of the “willful” and “malicious” act of protesting peacefully in front of a bank branch situated on their University campus.

There has been in recent months a great deal of online coverage of the brutality of public order policing at Davis. The treatment of the Davis Dozen, however, promises more longstanding injury. If found guilty, each faces charges of up to eleven years in prison and $1 million in fines.

The immediate history of the case stretches back to autumn 2008, when state budget cuts trickled down to the partly state-funded University of California. The administration of that University responded by announcing that tuition fees would be increased by 32%, prompting several months of vocal student protests and campus occupations, violently suppressed by the state authorities.

As the collapse of the US banking sector caused the State of California to withdraw its funding for its public Universities, those same Universities turned to the banking sector for financial support. On 3 November 2009, just two weeks before riot police would end a student occupation at UC Berkeley by firing rubber bullets and tear gas at the students and faculty gathered outside, the University of California Davis announced on its website a new deal with US Bank, the high street banking division of U.S Bancor, the fifth largest commercial bank in the United States.

According to the terms of that deal, US Bank would provide UC Davis with a campus branch and a variable revenue stream, to be determined by the University's success in urging its own students to sign up for US Bank accounts. In return UC Davis would print US Bank logos on all student ID cards, which from 2010 would be convertible into ATM cards attached to US Bank accounts. Just at the moment when, on the campus of UC Berkeley, riot police were beating up and shooting students who protested against austerity, fee increases, and their handmaiden, debt, the management of UC Davis was selling the debt of its own students to U.S. Bancor, the corporate beneficiary of “austerity.”

The poet and critic Joshua Clover, who has written extensively on those police actions, is among the twelve who sat down in front of the Davis branch of US Bank in protest, and who now faces the prospect of sitting in a cell in the Monroe County Detention Center until 2024, has argued that “the rise in tuition and indebtedness simply is the militarization of campus”. These processes, Clover says, “are one and the same”. The claim concerning police violence will not seem exaggerated to anyone who has watched the videos on You Tube of the police action at Davis.

The sit-down protests outside the UC Davis Branch of US Bank, in which the “UC Davis Dozen” were only a few of many participants, were not only peaceful; they were, in effect, the active demilitarization of campus. Their point was to make explicit the connection between corporate banking, state austerity and an increasingly militaristic police presence in universities.

US Bank closed its branch in the UC Davis Memorial Union Building in March. The sit-down protests were a success. That such effective protest cannot be tolerated is evident from the response of the University administration and the Yolo County District Attorney. The charges against the Davis Dozen have a notable history of service: “Obstructing movement in a public place” was an indictment invented to criminalise homelessness in Alabama. The Davis Dozen are to learn – on behalf of everyone affected by austerity – that protest against the conditions which lead to homelessness is criminalised by the same legislation that makes homelessness illegal. For the bankers, millionaire University administrators and state functionaries for whom “revenue” is to be maximised no matter what the cost to the people they serve, this paradox is no paradox at all.

We are grateful to the Davis Dozen for the example of principled and eloquent bravery in response to intolerable extensions of police and corporate power at a time when the poorest are being deterred from university study by the prospect of unmanageable debt. We, internationally located artists, critics, and writers, ask that the Davis Dozen be acquitted of these extraordinarily severe and ignoble charges, to which they have courageously pleaded “not guilty”.


Dr. David Nowell-Smith, Université Paris VII - Denis Diderot, Prof. Robert Hampson, Royal Holloway, Dr. Daniele Pantano, Edge Hill University, Olivier Brossard, Maître de conférences, littérature américaine, Université Paris Est-Marne la Vallée, David Gorin Jean-Jacques Pouce, Fellow, Internationales Kolleg Morphomata, Genese, Dynamik, Medialität kultureller Figurationen, Daisy Fried Abigail Lang, Maître de conférences (Associate Professor), Université Paris-Diderot, Paris, Michelle Levy Schulz Dominique Pasqualini, Directeur de l'école EMA Fructidor (School of media and fine arts, Director), Chalon-sur-Saône, Sean Bonney, Marianne Morris, poet, UC Falmouth, Keston Sutherland, Reader in English, University of Sussex, Orlando Reade, University of Cambridge Binh Nguyen, San Diego, CA, Janet Holmes, Boise State University B, arry Schwabsky, art critic, The Nation, Robert Kiely, Birkbeck College Kent Johnson John Wilkinson, poet, Professor of Practice in the Arts, University of Chicago Alvin D. Greenberg, Boise State University Dr. Alberto Toscano, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths Stacy Blint, Disappearing Books Katy Balma, Fulbright Fellow and Teaching Assistant, University of Connecticut Wendy Battin, poet and essayist David Lau, Lana Turner Magazine Nick-e Melville, poet and lecturer at Motherwell College, Scotland Peter Phillpott, Great Works, Patrick Pritchett, Lecturer, History and Literature, Harvard University Robert Archembeau, Professor of English, Lake Forest College (Illinois) Rob Holloway, Joseph Kaplan, Dr. Jeffrey Pethybridge, Susquehanna University Dr. Don Stinson, Northern Oklahoma College George Cunningham, Hansa Arts Joseph Walton Hugh McDonnell, University of Amsterdam Megan Kaminski, Creative Writing Lecturer, University of Kansas Jose A. Alcantara K.E Allen, Lecturer in English, Comprehensive Studies Program, University of Michigan Allan Peterson, Gulf Breeze, FL Siobain Walker Dr. Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Roehampton Francesca Lisette Caitlin Doherty, University of Cambridge Frances Richard, Barnard College Ryan Dobran, University of Cambridge Dr. Cathy Wagner, Miami University, OH John Bloomberg-Rissman, University of California, Riverside Carla Harryman, Associate Professor of Literature, Eastern Michigan University Robert Ellen Joel Duncan, University of Notre Dame Jared Schickling, Adjunct Professor, Humanities Division, Niagara Count Community College Dr. Ian Patterson, Fellow, Tutor, Director of Studies in English,  Queens' College, University of Cambridge Dr. Lisa Samuels, Associate Professor, University of Auckland, New Zealand Ian Heames, University od Cambridge Prof. Alex Davis, University College Cork John Temple Jonathan B. Highfield Dr. Jennifer Cooke, Lecturer in English, Loughborough University Dr. Zoe Skoulding, Bangor University Kashka Georgeson David Grundy, University of Cambridge Luke McMullan Josh Robison, University of Cambridge Josh Stanley, Phd Student, Yale University Luke Roberts, Phd candidate, University of Cambridge Gareth Durasow.

People protest after the pepper spray incident at UC Davis. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.