On the Narrative of Pepper Spray at UC Davis, or “Mic Check for President!”

UPDATE Sunday 12:36PM A second, different, and longer video of the incident is at the end of the post.

Here’s the YouTube. Video A:


The congealing narrative (supported by the YouTube’s title) goes like this: Online Furor After Police Pepper-Spray Demonstrators at UC Davis (Time; Atrios). I’m not so sure. After all, the pepper spraying takes up the first twenty seconds of the video; but 8 minutes and 14 seconds remain. So what happened after the pepper spray? I thought I’d see. (Hat tip to alert readers LucyLulu, patricia, and montanamaven for helping to tease this out; I’m not really visual- let alone video-minded).

So, here’s my transcript. I invite readers to follow along, and correct me. (I’ve noticed that time codes seem to vary a little from FireFox to Opera, so have patience with them, please.)

0:00 Students are seated in the university quad, blocking a path.

0:10 – 0:20 Uniformed police officer strolls into the frame, sprays bowed heads of students with a large economy size can of pepper spray, rather as if he were spraying vermin. Remarkably, while the action takes place, there are at least 5 recording devices on the frame besides the videographer’s: Cameras, video recorders, cell phones, and iPads. In still photos, I count 11. The whole world is, indeed, watching.

0:35 Occupiers assisting one another after the spraying. Shouts of “Boo!”

0:42 Chants of “Shame on you!” begin. Coughing.

0:52 Police begin hauling Occupiers away. Coughing. “What is wrong with you?!” Face of policeman, visor raised, not proud. “You guys are supposed to protect us!” Coughing. “OK, man?”

1:02 Loud (organizer-style?) chant: “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?” Crowd does not pick up.

1:14 Camera has been swerving all around; now a full view of the path, with the police dragging unresisting Occupiers off the path onto the ground at the top of the frame. Many bystanders still recording. (See image at left for a characteristic, collective gesture at an Occupier event: The arm, raised or crooked, extended to hold a camera.)

1:20 Police continue to drag Occupiers off path onto grass, subdue, handcuff them. “Shame on you! Shame on you!” begins anew. The path is clear. A police car has been pulled up the path to where the seated students were. Police begin to drag handcuffed Occupiers past the car, down the path, out of the frame to the left.

1:41 Brief shot of policeman with rifle raised, walking backward down the path to the left; two students in sweatshirt and black coat look on amazed. [I’ll say “rifle” because the weapon is not a handgun; it looks rather like an Imperial Storm Troopers blaster rifle: Black, bulbous, and heavy. UPDATE: In comments, readers point out that these are air guns, “technically non-lethal,” rather like tasers. I’m not sure if that diminishes the experience or not; it seems to me that the students have to assume whatever they are is a step up from pepper spray, and that’s pretty bad. From here on down, I’ll change “rifle” to “weapon”]

1:41 – 1:43 Ratio of police to dragged Occupier: 3 to 1. Continued: “Shame on you! Shame on you!”

1:50 – 2:11 Police continue to subdue occupiers. Continued “Shame on you!” Some police make pacifying gestures. Others, with nightsticks, visors lowered, are forming a line along the grass. Another stands in the center of the path, weapon partially lifted.

2:27 Occupier walked off the path by police. Only a 2:1 ratio, this time!

2:46 Crowd not inclined to disperse, but people only standing (and filming). No violent body language whatever. Continued chanting: “Shame on you!”

2:58 Looks like a management type in a windbreaker, center of the path. He waves a TV cameraman along. He also seems to be the only policeman, through the entire episode, who’s smiling. (I didn’t see any predatory smiles.)

3:16 Continued chanting “Shame on you!” Students milling about, intermingling with uniformed police carrying weapons. It’s surreal.

3:20 Police seem to group themselves, start walking down the path to the left of the frame in a loose formation. Continued “Shame on you!” Police faces behind the visors. Again, not proud. Not at all proud (see also James Fallows on this point.)

3:43 At first the police were walking forwards, down the path to the left, with their backs to the Occupiers, but at this point they slowly turn and start walking backwards, so that they face the Occupiers. There’s no visual or auditory stimulus for this change that I can detect. They also begin to bunch up. For the first time, the police look like a military formation — and one in retreat. The management type is not visible. I can’t see leadership or orders given, though perhaps the police have ear buds.

4:00 Policeman in center of screen with weapon partly raised.

4:20 Police still bunched in loose formation. “Shame on you!” continues, with addition of “you shit” something-or-other from one bystander.

4:36 Crowd has now concentrated on the videographer’s side of the path. Chanting is growing much louder. The crowd on the other side of the path is thin. (In other words, the police are not surrounded.)

5:07 More of the same. The police, for whatever reason, are no longer retreating. Nothing blocks them from moving left down the path, but they continue to stay right where they are.

5:30 New chant begins suddenly: “Who’s university? Our university!” Police seem to react uneasily, move around, exchange words. Lots of “Our university!”

6:05 Policeman: “Back off!” to the crowd (Patricia thinks to another police.)

6:09 [Kent State “13 seconds of shooting” timer starts [UPDATE Here I think I do exagerrate] Camera is focused on the front of the police formation. At least two of the police raise their weapons to a 45-degree angle, pointing front, to the right, down at the ground. What is in front of them, to the right of the frame, is not in the shot.

6:12 “Mic check! Mic check!” (hoarse, urgent) “Shame on you!” Shouting. (Frightening and amazing)

6:15 Three weapons raised horizontal.

6:20 [Kent State timer ends] “Mic check! Mic check! We are willing…”

Occupiers: “WE ARE WILLING…”

MC: “to give you a brief moment…”


MC: “of peace…”

Occupiers; “OF PEACE…”

MC: “so you may take your weapons…”


MC: “and your friends…”

Occupiers: “AND YOUR FRIENDS…”

MC: “and go.”

Occupiers: “AND GO.”

6:35 Policeman in front of line of weapons, now, holding two red cans, presumably pepper spray. Police faces behind visors puzzled.

MC: “Please do not return!”


MC: “We are giving you a moment of peace.”


MC: “You can go! We will not follow you!”

Occupiers: “WE WILL NOT FOLLOW YOU!” “You can go!” [confused shouting]

7:04 Occupiers: Chants, shouts, “You can go!”, “You can go!”, “You can go!”

7:11 And the police begin to back down the path. “You can go!”, “You can go!” “None of you is getting a pension!”

7:14 Now for the first time, the camera pans left to show who the police were facing: A loose crowd of students in hoodies and student gear, many of them holding cameras, chanting and shouting. No violent body language, no visible weapons.

7:20 Police still in a block formation, backing away.

7:45 Finally the police turn their backs on the Occupiers and walk down the path. Cheers. “Yeah!” (Somewhere military historian John Keegan says that in a rout, the first troops to flee are not at the front, but at the back of the column, instancing the collapse of the Old Guard at Waterloo. Notice that here, the first police to turn their backs and walk away are indeed those at the back of the column, and not those, weapons still partially raised, at the front.)

“Shame on you!” “Shame on you!” “Our university!” “Whose university?” “Our university!”

“Whose quad?” “Our quad!” “Whose quad?” “Our quad!”

8:13 and following: Can’t get this part clear, sounds like a call for a general assembly, the people’s mic still led by MC.

* * *
From the Barcalounger:

I don’t think the story is the pepper spray at all. Here are some other stories:

1. The Occupiers displayed remarkable courage. They had already been pepper-sprayed, yet they faced down armored, paramilitary policeman whose weapons were raised and aimed at them. Does anybody remember Kent State? In thirteen seconds of shooting, four died. [Revised] The weapons used here mean that the stakes were not as high as they were at Kent State. However, to me, the police, though paramilitary and armed, looked stressed, unhappy, confused, and ill-led, if led at all. For example, at 5:07, having dragged the arrestees away, what were they hanging about for? At 6:35, why wasn’t pepper spray used again? At some point not visible in the video, the police car was driven away. Who was in it, and why did they leave? Above all, why such a massive presence for grand total of six (I count six) pup tents? The whole situation, to someone with a nasty twist of thought, could have the feel of a set up: Putting Cossacks into a position where the odds are good enough that they’ll end up opening fire on a few peasants out of panic, giving plausible deniability to some anonymous security thug seeking preferment (“bad apples,” “mistakes were made”). Not that I’m paranoid. UPDATE The eternal question: Stupid and/or evil? I gave a tentative nod to evil, but there’s stupid too!

(Both LucyLulu and Patricia take a somewhat different view, and we can discuss in comments. I think it’s important to get this incident right, in case the tactics can be scale out horizontally.)

2. The Occupiers displayed remarkable ingenuity. The tactic of taking an internal, General Assembly deliberative technique and externalizing it for use in a confrontation with police was brilliant. The tactic (as commenter LucyLulu pointed out) both defused tensions with the police, and refocused the crowd on non-violence. And empowering the police with “You can go” was also brilliant. So, who had the power here?

3. The Occupiers won. They held their space. They seized and held the initiative. Further, I think that a reputation for non-violence is a strategic asset; it puts “good will” on the Occupation’s balance sheet, and that’s important if “all walks of life” are to participate. (That is not a moral position, but a pragmatic one.)

Of course, there may be other narratives to be constructed. Readers?

Oh, and “Mike Check for President!” As a write-in, I suppose, if your state permits that.

NOTE Time‘s headline also gets the story wrong a second way. The “online furor” is meta: It’s far less important than what is going to happen on the ground at UC Davis. It sounded to me, at the end of the video, like the General Assembly was going to call for a strike on Monday.

UPDATE OK, OK, I changed the headline. I’m so old, I remember when “step up to the mic” was spelled “step up to the mike.” But I defer to readers, who prefer “mic.” That said, I envision a fake presidential campaign for Michael “Mike” Check, rather as an antidote Michael “Mike” Bloomberg’s impending third party run… Maybe somebody should set up a facebook page and start a campaign…

UPDATE Thanks so much to the commenters who straightened me out on the type of weaponry used. If we knew the exact model, we could find out where it was used….

UPDATE Here’s a second and longer (15 minutes) video of the event, taken from a different vantage point. Readers, I don’t have time to look at it right now, but if any of you want to, please post any new information you discover in comments. I’ll label this video Video B, and last night’s video Video A. If you use time codes for video B, please do them like this: B0:00. Any time codes without a preceding letter, like all those to this moment, should be presumed to be from Video A.

Video B


This post originally appeared at naked capitalism and is posted with permission.