Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Youth and Free Speech Wasted at UC Davis

Adrenaline.  Youth.  And angst.

A tricky combination in the best of times.  But at UC Davis's now-infamous pepper spray incident last Friday, they proved to be a sad reminder that youth can indeed be wasted on the young.

With all of the shrieking, screaming, and wailing going on in videos of that event, you'd have thought the student demonstration had something to do with an egregious injustice, like a confessed killer going free.  To learn that these kids were simply upset because college tuition rates have gone up paints the entire scenario with more absurdity than admiration regarding the right to free speech.

Don't like rising costs and prices?  What a good learning experience about life - which is what college is supposed to be, right?

Think about it, class:  how effective is throwing a temper tantrum at the gas station?  Or linking arms in protest across the entrance to your local grocery store?  It's Economics 101:  prices rise.  Understanding why prices rise, determining what costs are unnecessary, and petitioning for redress of fiscal grievances requires prudence, not petulance.  The cost of a decent education rises like everything else, and at a state-run school like UC Davis, those costs get born by taxpayers and students alike. Actually, UC Davis' students should be thankful they're not bearing the full brunt of those cost increases.

Like many people, I have to admit that I winced at seeing footage of campus policemen dousing the line of students with orange pepper spray.  For law-abiding Americans, whether liberal or conservative, it should not be easy to watch burly law enforcement officials disproportionately punishing civilians for trying to defend their point of view.  Witnessing our First Amendment freedoms come under such a severe attack should shake us.

Nevertheless - and this is the kicker - what we've seen on those videos about the campus police at UC Davis isn't really a desecration of First Amendment rights.  Is it?

We need to start with the original purpose of the demonstration, which was, frankly, an unfortunate display of ignorance by students regarding how expensive their education is and how it's financed.  Forming a human chain across a walkway might be something students who've spent half a semester in civics class consider profound.  But it isn't going to make lawmakers in Sacramento writhe with guilt over the egregious ways they fund California's colleges, is it?  It's not going to help reduce bureaucratic waste in the UC system to help control costs, either.  All it does is demonstrate an inability on the part of the students to comprehend how financially destitute their state is, and how many of the liberal entitlements they cherish as immature adults are contributing to California's inability to pay for them all - including the state's lavish college system.

Let's face it:  this demonstration really was just a fun way to stoke some youthful bravado and pretend as though their cause is worth more than every other financial crisis in the Golden State.

As for the perceived villains, how many campus cops get much respect to begin with?  UC Davis' campus police should actually be credited with not running out hastily and confronting students they feared were staging anarchy on the quad.  Sure, the police officers wore full riot gear, but wouldn't you, considering the fact that college students have been known to be unreasonable and unpredictable?  Especially with some of the radical role models professors love to dangle in front of their impressionable scholars.  Watch the videos, and you'll see the cops standing around for quite some time, brandishing weapons and pepper spray cans, yes, but also repeatedly warning the students about responsibilities to authority and consequences of actions.

Not that any law-abiding citizen should live in fear of the cops. But isn't a common respect for authority figures - even when we disagree with them - a greater hallmark of civilized behavior than taunting that authority and unnecessary brinkmanship?

At this point, we can't ignore the throngs of other students on the sidelines, too feeble to participate with the actual demonstration, but caught up enough in the adrenaline rush to find the drama alluring.  Wow - would we see a shooting?  Would they really use pepper spray?  I wonder what that would feel like?  I think that guy leading the chants is so cute!  Will the demonstrators give in at the last minute?  Hey - I can record this on my iPhone!  How cool is that?

Watching the videos, we can even see what appear to be professional photographers with bulky videocameras on their shoulders. Which makes one wonder if organizers of the students' demonstration called the local news media and suggested there might be some compelling sights and sounds out of their event.  As if maybe they were hoping something this dramatic might unfold?

So even though the images of cops spraying orange pepper spray into the faces of those students is in itself disturbing, you wonder if the students really weren't asking for it.  Weren't they trying to provoke the cops?  They had all the ingredients in the mix, and they would likely have been sorely disappointed if the cops would have just walked away in disgust at the stunt.  Plus, pepper spray doesn't kill you.  And to follow their already misguided line of non-logic, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  So bring it on.

And the cops obliged.

For only a few seconds, a couple of cops sprayed the faces of several of the demonstrators.  But from the howls of the bystanders, you'd have thought a whole army had been massacred.  Again, the pathos of misappropriated horror took over the scene, and if I were a parent of any of the kids whose faces appear on the videos, I'd be embarrassed at the absurdity of it all.  I'm sure those screenshots won't appear on any student's employment resume if they ever graduate.

Indeed, perhaps what's more disturbing than the images of cops spraying kids' faces with pepper spray is the farce those students may have made of First Amendment rights.  Free speech isn't really free in the sense that it costs nothing.  Or that it can be used unwisely.  It is a valuable right, and one that we should treat responsibly.  Is linking arms and spreading across a college campus walkway to demonstrate how little you understand about funding higher education a good use of something for which countless Americans have actually died in wars?  Shouldn't we save such indignation for when religious freedoms come under attack, when the press is censored, or when minority groups are intimidated in their quest for equal rights?

Oh, right.  Those have already happened.  Legitimate cries for human dignity.  Which means when UC Davis' students stage such a comparatively innocuous demonstration as theirs, free speech risks getting cheapened.

Granted, the campus police could have used other means for brokering the situation instead of pepper spray, but it does not appear that the students would have had it any other way.  And in a sense, the cops helped those students broadcast their message beyond the campus of UC Davis.  Even though that message cast the demonstrators in a negative light.  What would have been just another hollow Occupy protest in suburban Sacramento ended up keeping the national media busy throughout the weekend.

Is that enough to validate the students' claims of victimization at the hands of over-armed riot police?  Or, since California's higher-ed funding woes are only predicted to worsen, has all this rage become just another fad in our current era of discontent?

At least in suburban Sacramento, we can hope last Friday's skirmish will fade away as the need for personal accountability overcomes the irrationality of youth.  Unfortunately, by the time most people discover real causes worth fighting for, the energy of their youth is more memory than mobilizer.

Which means the kids who stayed in the classroom and learned how to solve problems likely will have a greater long-term impact on society than the ones who simply look for impact in the moment.

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