DAVIS, Calif. — Over the past two months, the Occupy movement has spawned endless footage of young protesters in tents in New York and Washington. But what may be its most galvanizing image emerged from an unlikely place: the University of California campus in this fog-shrouded city.
It was here, on Nov. 18, that students shot video of a campus police officer training a can of pepper spray on a row of seated protesters. The video went viral. Now, this public university outside Sacramento is a focal point of the Occupy universe.
Student organizers at Davis called a strike Monday, capitalizing on the national spotlight and drawing hundreds of students from their classes on the eve of finals to picket a morning meeting of the university system’s regents. Together with alumni and outside activists, they hoisted signs that read “No tuition hikes” and “Bring back the master plan” — a reference to a 1960 document that made California’s public universities a national model of access and affordability.
“You can tell there’s a lot of outrage here,” said Lauren Yamane, 30, a graduate student from Spokane, Wash., who stood among a throng of protesters outside the regents meeting. “These students aren’t usually the protesting type.”
UC-Davis, a former agricultural college on a sprawling campus of 32,000 students in California’s Central Valley, lives in the shadow of its storied sister UC school in Berkeley. The Davis campus is known for its ubiquitous bicycles and student-run bus service, not for sit-ins and confrontations with police in riot gear.
Few expected many headlines out of Occupy UC Davis, an encampment of tents rising from the quad at the center of campus. But the pepper-spray incident transformed the campus into a symbol of resistance.
University Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi faces a large number of critics who say she should resign. Leaders from across higher education have condemned the incident as a blatant civil rights violation. Mark Yudof, president of the UC system, has ordered an independent investigation headed by William Bratton, a former Los Angeles police chief.
“I intend to do everything in my power as president of the university to protect the rights of our students, faculty and staff to engage in nonviolent protest,” Yudof said Monday, addressing the UC community at the regents meeting.
The pepper-spraying overshadowed a Nov. 9 incident at Berkeley, in which campus police jabbed another group of Occupy protesters with batons.
Together, the episodes are “creating outrage even among people who don’t believe in the Occupy movement,” said Jon Perri, 26, a community organizer from San Francisco who was among the Davis protesters Monday.
Occupy protesters on Wall Street and in Washington’s McPherson Square have sought to articulate a movement that is ultimately about rising disparities between rich and poor.
By contrast, the Davis protesters have two comparatively specific grievances: pepper spray and spiraling tuition.
Students pay $13,181 in annual tuition and fees, nearly twice the rate of five years ago. Protesters contend the board plans to nearly double tuition again over the next four years. University leaders say they are working with legislators to minimize any increase.
Occupy protesters have grafted their movement onto the perennial cycle of tuition outrage at the 10 UC campuses, where students have taken to the streets in past years to oppose escalating fees.
Annual state funding to the 220,000-student system has declined from a high of $3.2 billion to $2.3 billion in the economic downturn, despite rising enrollment. This year, for the first time, the UC system collects more money from students than from the state.
“Let me make clear, none of us want to raise tuition,” said Sherry Lansing, chairman of the board of regents, speaking at Monday’s public session.
A few hundred students filed into the meeting at UC-Davis, and perhaps a hundred more gathered outside. Later, several hundred students gathered inside the building where their tuition dollars are collected, chanting, “No cuts, no fees.”
The regents took a verbal beating from students, who lined up at a microphone for public comment.
“The state has let us down, and you have let us down,” said Katheryn Kolesar, 27, a graduate student from State College, Pa.
Chanting protesters briefly shut down the regents meeting, which was staged at four separate campuses by teleconference partly to avert confrontation. Regents regrouped in separate rooms after the interruption, while protesters in Davis, Los Angeles and San Francisco convened protest meetings, passing resolutions calling for various officials to resign.
Outside at Davis, as the autumn sun burned off the morning fog, groups of students huddled around professors for impromptu “teach-ins.”
One session was led by Mark Van Horn, longtime director of the university’s Student Farm. Students gathered around him on concrete benches for a far-ranging discussion of taxation, California politics and civil liberties.
“I think the unique role that university students have,” Horn told the students, “is that they’re all together, and they are educated, and they can make their voice heard.”