When pepper spray is the face of education

Police at Santa Monica College pepper sprayed protesting students.

Trent M. Kays

Last week, students protesting fee hikes at Santa Monica College were pepper sprayed by members of the college’s police force as they attempted to enter a Board of Trustees meeting. The police officers involved kept the protestors at bay and from airing their grievances and voices with the Board of Trustees. Adamant not to let the protestors into the meeting, the police force held them back, and in an all too damning photo now spread across the internet, a police sergeant stands pointing at the protestors while holding his baton over his head ready to strike.

This scenario is a horrifying one, and much like the University of California-Davis incident in which seated students were pepper sprayed, one I never thought I’d see on a college campus. When did it become wrong for students to air their grievances? When did it become wrong for students to stand together on their campus? Students have a right to their opinion and anger when they see their education becoming less valuable but more expensive. Yet, incidents, like the one at Santa Monica College, are examples of a system rotting from the inside.

A university education is still the goal of many people. Even though the value of that education seems to be dwindling at some levels, people still flock to college campuses around the country to study in the hope that they may better their life circumstances. However, students seem to only be permitted to disagree if that disagreement doesn’t get in the way of the university administration’s politics.

All education is political, but universities don’t always educate students on how to navigate such politics. If the UC-Davis and Santa Monica College incidents have taught us anything, it’s that students aren’t allowed to voice their opinions to people who control the politics of a campus, that students don’t deserve to be around those who take the control of their education away from them.

Students should control their education. Students should have a say about their education and future. Yet, students’ voices on campus are increasingly unvalued. This phenomenon will destroy education in this country. Without students, there is no need for universities. Protest and debate should be encouraged on all university campuses because it is the passion of students that keeps higher education afloat. So, when events transpire that exemplify the lack of respect by administrators and university officials for students’ voices, it’s disheartening and counter to what a university should exemplify: respect for and service to the public good.

Reports of police brutality and overzealousness have become commonplace in the news media. Reports of police arbitrarily arresting people without probable cause, pepper spraying randomly and without direction and bullying citizens engaged in protest are common news stories now. College campuses are not immune. But what does it mean for the future of education and protest?

These types of incidents create a hostile environment in a place where hostility should not exist. Universities are supposed to be centers of learning and expression. Students should be able to peacefully protest and challenge those officials who would stand in the way of their education. What becomes troublesome is when those officials dismiss the issues of students as not their problem. Indeed, education is becoming far too expensive in this country, and there aren’t enough protests about it. How long are we going to let the price of education rise in this country? Soon only the very wealthy will be able to afford education, and those without will continue to be subjugated to those with advanced privilege.

Access to education is no longer enough. We must have access to those who will control and direct our education. University administrators and those in power must be held accountable and must be accessible to the students whose lives they hold in the palm of their hands. The examples of police officers arbitrarily pepper spraying students, professors, children and others in their way is symptomatic of a system run amok. It is symptomatic of administrators who are out of touch with the populations of their universities. It is symptomatic of how university officials see students: as cattle. Students, who continuously see their rights eroded, are becoming cattle that are seen as nothing more than PEZ dispensers forking over loan money that they’ll never be able to pay off.

So, when students finally stand up and protest such lack of respect, what happens? They get pepper sprayed by baton wielding, overzealous police officers. Welcome to your college experience. This type of behavior is unacceptable on many levels, but none so more than that it is an overt example of oppression in a place that should be fighting oppression. The issues at stake are not merely about tuition hikes; it’s about a student’s constitutionally protected rights being eroded in the one place many thought they’d never see them eroded: a university.

The future of higher education in the U.S. is an ambiguous one; however, at the heart of that future will be the students and their teachers. It would be a shame if that future was one of voiceless students and teachers locked inside their walled classrooms instead of a passionate group of people working for a better and more equitable world. George Orwell once remarked, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” I really hope Orwell was wrong, but the path we’re heading down doesn’t look promising.