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
Show Hide image

What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”