UC Davis Protests and Police: Why Violence Never Works

One of the ugly truths of human existence is that violence works.

As a proponent of nonviolence, it is hard for me to make that statement, but please hear me out.  The anthropologist René Girard claims that we gain temporary peace through sacrifice, expulsion, and other acts of violence.  In this sense, violence works to bring a sense of peace and calm, but that sense of peace and calm is simply that – an illusion that the problem has been solved.  Although violence brings this sense of peace, it doesn’t have the capability of solving underlying problems.  In fact, violence covers up the problems.  Because those problems are not dealt with, they emerge once again.  We remember the sense of peace that violence brought us before, and so we repeat the cycle.

To paraphrase the great non-violent activist Michael Nagler in his book The Search for a Nonviolent Future, violence may work, but violence never works.  It might give us a temporary sense of peace, but it never solves our problems.

What does this have to do with the recent events at University of California, Davis?

The UC Davis campus police believe that violence works.  They used pepper spray to coerce the students who were nonviolently protesting.  That violence worked temporarily as a means to forcibly remove students, but it didn’t work, as two days after the incident student protesters once again occupied the quad, leaving the authorities wondering how they should now respond.

Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi believes that violence works, and employed that belief yesterday in the form of expulsion.  She claimed about her decision to place campus Police Chief Annette Spicuzza on administrative leave that “As I have gathered more information about the events that took place on our Quad on Friday, it has become clear to me that this is a necessary step toward restoring trust on our campus.”  The Los Angeles Times correctly reports that this act of expulsion is an attempt to restore peace.  The authors of the article claim that “Katehi announced Monday that she had put campus Police Chief Annette Spicuzza on administrative leave, an effort to restore peace to the 32,000-student public university.”

UC Davis assistant professor Nathan Brown, along with some other faculty members, also believes violence in the form of expulsion works.  Brown wrote an impassioned article on his blog calling for Katehi’s resignation.  “I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation…”

I want to be clear: What the UC Davis campus police did was an irresponsible act of violence that put nonviolent protesters in physical danger.  But here’s the thing: All violence is irresponsible because it never works.  It only covers up the underlying problems.  Expelling a police chief by placing her on “administrative leave” may give a sense of peace, but that form of violence isn’t going to solve the bigger problem of our faith in violence.  Demanding Katehi’s resignation might give a sense of peace as we think we are holding someone responsible, but that act of expulsion will only teach that expulsion is an effective way to solve problems, and thus, cover up the real problems.

Perhaps our hope lies with the students.  I hope that all of this violence and talk of expulsion will not distract them for the real issues that they are protesting – universities throughout the country are raising tuition costs and cutting budgets.  In the face of further violence, I hope they remain nonviolent in their protests, because violence will only cover up the issues they are protesting.

Because violence never works.