Reading Katehi: The Pepper Spray Chancellor

by zunguzungu

When confronted with a sentence like this one (is it only one?), it’s difficult to know how to respond:

“We were worried at the time about [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.”

That’s Linda Katehi, the Chancellor of UC Davis, explaining her decision to send police to clear away the Occupy encampment on the Davis campus, a decision that quickly led to the now infamous “pepper spray incident,” as it is called in the Reynoso and Kroll reports from which that quote is taken.

And those reports are pretty damning. As Nathan Brown put it, they paint “A Portrait of Administrative Malice, Stupidity, Incompetence, and Immaturity,” and he’s right: we could have hoped for more from them, maybe, but we also could have reasonably expected a whole hell of a lot worse. Annette Spicuzza, the UCPD police chief whose fingerprints were all over that canister of pepper spray, announced her retirement yesterday, and the Kroll/Reynoso report had a lot to do with making it necessary for someone to take the rap. It turned out to be her, and good riddance.

It’s not all sunshine and daffodils, of course; as Nathan Brown notes, the Reynoso report was limited to the facts that Kroll provided them, and Kroll, in turn, mostly limited themselves to what UC Davis gave them. In his words, “the fact-finding upon which the report is based is often middling and ineffectual. On the key issue of the Chancellor’s actual orders on and prior to November 18, it has very little to say. Rather, it relies primarily upon an interview with the Chancellor conducted after the fact, on December 20, to gauge her position. Given the international condemnation the Chancellor was facing at that time, no one should be surprised to find her remarks composed of efforts at self-serving revisionism. The report states openly that Kroll relied upon UC Davis in the area of document production; it was deemed infeasible for budgetary, timing, and other reasons for Kroll to conduct an independent, systemic forensic review and analysis of UC Davis servers, hard drives, and electronic devices. In other words, only those documents (such as administrative emails) that UC Davis itself offered for inspection were reviewed. In short, on the key matters of concern we might expect the report to address, Kroll’s fact finding leaves serious omissions.”

This is part of why Linda Katehi will likely remain where she is. UC President Mark Yudof gave a nice demonstration of how things work, for example, when he instantly responded to his “cursory reading” of the report (on the day it was released) with a vow to work with Katehi to move forward:

Even a cursory reading of the report confirms what we have known from the start: Friday, Nov. 18 was a bad day for the UC Davis community and for the entire UC system. We can and must do better. I look forward to working with Chancellor Katehi to repair the damage caused by this incident and to move this great campus forward.

It’s a neat rhetorical trick, allowing him to take cognizance of the report, and to speak about it, but without being burdened by any necessary knowledge or apprehension of its contents. He’s only given it a “cursory reading,” you see. And yet his first response — the one he gives before really reading the thing — will, in all likelihood, be his last, neatly underscoring how basically and totally indifferent he is to its actual contents: by vowing to work with her, apparently, no matter what the report said about her, the one thing shown not to be on the table, as far as he was concerned, is her replacement.

Katehi’s recent “state of the campus” speech makes her personal immunity just as clear: after uttering the words “I take full responsibility for the incident” she follows them up with (in the same sentence) a remarkable redefinition of “responsibility” as “authority,” continuing with:

“and I consider myself accountable for all the actions that need to be taken to make sure our campus is a safe and welcoming place.”

It’s a radically warped and self-serving misunderstanding of what accountability is, the claim that having fucked up to a tremendous extent is precisely what gives her the obligation to be the one that cleans up the mess. In her mind, apparently, showing yourself to be unworthy of trust is precisely what necessitates staying on to formulate the policies and reforms which will reassure us that such a thing will never happen again. The crucial point would be, then, that a variety of policies and procedures were already in place to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening. The problem was that Linda Katehi and company simply ignored them and did whatever they felt like.

This is why I’m not that interested in treating the reports as a totality. The people who wrote them offer a lot of facts and make a few very clear statements about the remarkable failures of leadership — and hyper-violent police reflexes — that resulted in “a bad day for the UC Davis community and for the entire UC system,” and that’s all to the good, as far as it goes. It makes good reading if, like me, you’re still extremely angry about what happened. But as an administrative exercise it is primarily a process that takes up and has taken up time, such that the main thing it accomplishes (absent real pressure from below) is likely to be exactly a kind of permanent deferral: to the extent that it confirms what we already know, it will be noted (“a bad day”), while the rest of it will be uttered into space, and ignored. It offers an analysis of what happened but, by design, no specific recommendations: as one of the report’s authors noted, “The task force was specifically charged not to recommend disciplinary action, just to assign responsibility. It’s up to the university and community to do something with it.” Which is to say, by strictly formulating the mission of the review as a retroactive analysis of what went wrong, it provides no more than what could have been done, but wasn’t, to prevent that “bad day” from occurring. Add that to the kind of “look forward, not back” mentality we’ve repeatedly been told we must adopt, and you’ll pardon me for expecting that what we already have is all we’ll get.

But, as I said, the thing makes great reading. And since perhaps we will find the devil in the details, I want to fixate on that, on the language and thinking behind it that it reveals.

That first sentence, for example, the one I started with: note how it is both one sentence and also many, the way the ellipses connect a series of otherwise separate and complete (and disjointed) thoughts into one single-but-discontinuous stream of consciousness. While that fact might be a function of how the report’s authors put it together, I think there’s also a certain logic to the resulting construction, the way it both breaks apart and then runs back together as a single, incoherent thought. After all, what she’s trying to do is express and foreground a state of mind – note the repetition of the phrase “we were worried” — and not really to make connections or put together a coherent argument that their concern was grounded and reasonable. Instead of a syllogistic construction of a series of premises into a proposition, in other words, instead of a logical sequence of statements that build to a point, we get something like the opposite, a bunch of statements woven together precisely without any clear warrant for doing so. Which turns out to be the point, for by doing so, she expresses the inner subjective (non)logic of a flawed jump-to-conclusions in ways that make it sympathetic to us. That jump, that incoherent breaking, is part of the message she’s sending. She wants you to feel like you would have made the same mistake. She wants you to feel that her “if anything happens” fear, however unreasonable and unsupportable it might be, would be an irrationality that you would also feel.

We were worried at the time, she begins, because of what was in the news. So, right off the bat, we’re not only lodging ourselves — narratively speaking — in the realm of spectacle, but we’re confining ourself to that constrained interpretive capacity, precisely as a way of re-staging her mindset at the time. She was worried by what she could (only helplessly) read about in the papers, she tells us; this is what we knew, she says, which is to say: what we could read about (in the scandal-mongering newspapers) defined the limit point of what was knowable (and what could be acted upon). It’s an expression and a plea of cognitive helplessness, stemming from the after-the-fact realization that while they screwed up massively — “it was a bad day” — they can save themselves by making that screw-up seem to come from a place of low knowledge but good faith.

In other words, it’s damage control via empathetic identification with (a media enabled) ignorance. Katehi understands and acknowledges that “mistakes were made,” which is to employ that idiom in its usual sense, as an alibi. She can’t win this round, but she knows she can survive it if she can frame those mistakes as sympathetic, as the sort of mistakes you might make, if you were in her shoes. As a result, she’s not trying to rationalize a set of decisions, but to retroactively reconstruct a (sympathetically constricted) state of misunderstanding that she is as capable of diagnosing as you are. We were misled by the wild-eyed hysterics in the media, she tells us; they made us fear! And what they made us fear was — even if irrational — a thing we quite sympathetically have our irrational fears about: sex, violence, and our young girls violated by older outsiders.

This is part of why it becomes a temporal argument. What you have to remember, she’s saying, is that this was early November. It was a crazy time, you know? Oakland! The more firmly they can embed us in that time, that moment, the less we are likely to protest that it makes no sense at all to be talking about Oakland in the middle of a discussion of UC Davis, or to observe that they were, in fact, pepper spraying “your daughter” to protect her from a purely imaginary danger. Indeed, Vice Chancellor Meyer doubles down on this theme, with exactly this disconnected train of association:

“our context at the time was seeing what’s happening in the City of Oakland…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?”

And yet, especially if you’re familiar with California psycho-geography, you will start to hear some serious dog whistles here. Oakland is the American Babylon; for it, insert every right-wing fever dream about failing inner city crime/drugs/pathology you need, with a light sprinkling of “birthplace of the Black Panthers.” Davis, by contrast, is a bucolic college town in cowtown, as well as being the beating heart of California’s Central Valley… which is, in turn, the reason the words “Governor Arnold” became something other than a joke. In other words, Davis may only be a 90 minute drive to the Bay Area (and a stone’s throw from Sacramento), but that short drive to the Bay Area also spans a kind of ideological chasm that separates the greater embodiment of (un)American Liberal Communist-Corruption of Gays and Blacks and Radicals from California’s midwestern heartland, with its ranches and farms and honest hardworking American values. In one sense, then, Davis can seem to be everything Oakland isn’t, and vice versa: the one seen to be a teeming and constricted concrete jungle of poverty and crime, the other can feel like a grand panorama of Land Tamed by Science for Human Progress and Prosperity.

But, of course, Davis is not exactly identical with Red State America. It went blue, as most college towns do, and as most cities do (like Sacramento, of which it is effectively a kind of outer suburb). And if you look at the way House districts are gerrymandered in California, you’ll notice that a little Davis-isthmus of blue connects the island-outpost of Blue Sacramento — swimming in a greater sea of Red Blooded Americanness — to the Sodom and Gomorrah on the Bay, and to the weird Cannabis frontier that takes you along the wilderness towards Portlandia and Socialized Canadia.

In other words, if Northern California is split Blue from Red as the Bay cleaves to the Central Valley, than “Davis” is located on a particular conjunction of ideological fault lines for which “Oakland” names several different kinds of Others, different shadowy doubles whose terrifying visage defines what sorts of virtues Real America is supposed to have: small towns where everyone knows each other, quiet, middle class, and if not necessarily white, then definitely not not-white. Davis is all of these things, and yet it’s perched perilously close to the precipice…

Now, parenthetically, we should note that Katehi and company had the opposite of a factual basis for these fears. It wasn’t just that that it’s silly to conflate Oakland and UC Davis in a general sense, though this is, absolutely, a very silly thing to fear. It’s that they actually had a lot of evidence that the people in the camp were primarily students, and they had to work hard to unthink this knowledge. As the Kroll report notes on p. 50, for example:

During the conversations with [Assistant Vice Chancellor] Wells and the activists, the issue of “non-affiliates” was discussed. According to [student redacted] he and Wells counted the number of outside people, “and it was lower than the ratio for clubs. Like there’s a certain ratio [of UCD students to non-UCD students] that clubs have to have.” [student redacted]‘s comments appear directed at the UC Davis policy for Registered Student Organizations (“RSOs”), which states that UC Davis students must comprise at least three-fourths of an RSO’s membership and “retain decision-making authority and control over its programs and finances.” Non-student members of RSOs “may attend the RSO meetings and events, teach, participate in discussions, serve as guest speakers on an occasional basis, and perform incidental tasks for the University.”

And later:

After having spent several hours with the activists on the Quad, Assistant Vice Chancellor Castro called in to the 10:00 p.m. Leadership Team conference call. According to Castro, Chief Spicuzza “reported that her officers had told her that 80 percent of the people out there weren’t students, that we had non-affiliates here. And so I said no … that’s not what I saw … I was out there … the only non-affiliates I saw were people from the interfaith communities providing food … and they were not spending the night.” Chancellor Katehi then asked Castro if she could “prove” that the activists were mostly students and Castro responded that she could not, saying, “I didn’t ask for IDs. It’s just from my sense of what I know.” Chief Spicuzza then remarked that she believed Castro’s assessment was more accurate than that of her own officers.

But this is not where the insistent belief in the presence on “non-affiliates” comes from. As the Kroll report carefully notes on p.29, the connection is not between misperception and fear, but between misperception and desire. The presence of “non-affiliates” would give them the ability to do what they wanted to do:

The view that non-affiliates had a significant presence among the Occupy activists survived this discussion [the conference call above]. The letter from Chancellor Katehi that was distributed to activists on the Quad at approximately 11 a.m. on Friday, November 18 stated:

“We are aware that many of those involved in the recent demonstrations on campus are not members of the UC Davis community. This requires us to be even more vigilant about the safety of our students, faculty and staff.”

Indeed, in a January 13, 2012 letter to Kroll investigative staff, Senor Campus Counsel Michael Sweeney noted “several Kroll investigators have asked questions about the laws that apply to camping on the quad, and the laws that were cited in the police arrest citations. I will use this opportunity to briefly clarify this topic. The law that most clearly applies is California Code of Regulations, title 5, section 100005, enclosed, which prohibits non-affiliates [emphasis added] from camping on University property.” Thus, in response to questions about the legal basis for the police action the administration cites legal authority that only applies to non-affiliates.

To put it as simply as possible, there is no law against setting up tents in the day-time, and the UCDPD had no legal basis for what they did. They just didn’t. And since the presence of “non-affiliates” was the only possible legal fig leaf the campus administrators and police had to rely on, they had to believe in them, with all the faith of a 2003-era war hawk arguing about WMD’s in Iraq. Since Katehi wanted to destroy the camps, above all — and as the reports make very clear, the one non-negotiable objective was that the camps go, regardless of legal warrant — they had to imagine into existence a world in which such an action was defensible. They had to imagine Oakland bursting out of Davis. And so they did.

In short, the presence of an Other — an implicitly racialized, sexually dangerous, and also sort of constitutively unknowable outsider — is what gives them the authority to regulate the campus. It’s what empowers them to exert police authority over its spaces. It’s even what makes Katehi — essentially a glorified fundraiser and figurehead — seem legitimate as sovereign authority.

As ReclaimUC puts it, the problem of outsiders comes to assume an enormous amount of space in the administrative mind:

[T]he “non-affiliate” is the central element that both shapes the administrative gaze and reveals its operative logic. Structurally, the “non-affiliate” plays a similar role to the “outside agitator” (a figure that has for its part also made some significant appearancesin recent East Bay struggles), those excluded bodies that transgress the constitutive boundaries of a particular political formation or community. What is at stake in the definition of the “non-affiliate” is a spatial politics of both inclusion and exclusion, since by defining who is excluded this language at the same time defines who is included. To the extent that the target of protesters at the UC and beyond has been precisely the privatization of public education, these protests — which have consistently faced repression at the hands and batons of UCPD — are about redefining the spatial logic of inclusion/exclusion that drives the decision-making of the UC administration.

But I would push this point even harder: the begged question in a great deal of this is what role a “non-affiliate” can legitimately have on campus. Are they invaders? Or guests? We should remember, by the way, that even if you are a Californian citizen who graduated from UC Davis — even if you are a current UC student, but at a different campus — you are, by these standards, a “non-affiliate,” an outsider, a presence whose presence can necessitate and legitimize violence. It goes without saying that if you are “from Oakland,” you have no right or standing in discussions of higher education at UC Davis. This was made painfully clear to me a month ago, when capitol police singled out an Occupy Oakland protester, in the midst of hundreds of people protesting at the state capitol in favor of higher education, and forced him to leave the Capital grounds. His protest sign — build schools not prisons — was not deemed to be a legitimate part of the proceedings, and he was explicitly told that he had no right to be part of the protest for higher education. The fact that he is black was not incidental. If you are merely a Californian, do you have a right to go to UC Davis quad and stand on the grass?

This is, of course, what it’s all about. Is this university “public” and what is the content of that publicness? And so, if there’s one thing the reports demonstrate, it’s that whatever “Education” is to Katehi, it doesn’t include whatever “Oakland” represents to her. It’s a thing that she and her class of administrator own — by a kind of permanent sovereign authority — and it’s a thing she’ll not only defend with police force, but which must be defended from those who are outside of it, by virtue of lacking contractual economic relationship with the UC Regents. In radical defiance — or ignorance — of the manner in which the University of California was originally chartered as a “public trust” — conceptually akin to a public waterway, open to every and all — and the manner in which it  was re-chartered in the 1950’s to serve and enrich the state as a whole, the one thing that Linda Katehi knows, even the only thing she seems to know, is that her job is to keep outsiders out, to regulate the manner in which those who have bought in, who have paid their fees, who have become education owners, get to keep their privilege away from those who do not.

(On this, see also Gina Patnaik and I, here: “On Privatization and Brutalizing Campuses“)