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In Protest of Belittling Language

by Elizabeth DeBusk | William and Mary

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: November 22, 2011
Elizabeth DeBusk Elizabeth DeBusk

Since the Vietnam War, peaceful protests have become something of a staple for college campuses. The Occupy Wall Street movement has worked to make these protests even more prominent in recent days. In a peaceful protest at the University of California Davis campus on Friday, police officers sprayed students with pepper spray after the students refused to disperse. Videos of the incident circulated around the internet, with one such video receiving well over 1.3 million hits on YouTube, and created massive public outcry about the reactions of the police officers.

Over the course of the weekend, students called for University Chancellor Linda Katehi’s resignation, and an Amazon.com page was created in order to collect donations for UC-Davis protestors. As of Monday afternoon, over 70 tents had been donated to the protestors. The attention, and now resources, given to the protestors is greatly owed to the disconcerting images of the pepper spraying incident.

I do not deny that the actions taken by the UC-Davis police officers were horrific; while the students may have been a disruptive force on campus, their actions were not causing any harm. Watching video of the incident is chilling, but I fear that the protestors’ message may be being lost in the focus on their youth.

Possibly more disconcerting to me than the actual incident has been the outcry, “These are children! These are children!” This rhetorical device appeals to public sympathy for the protestor’s cause – no one can state that harming children is acceptable. While this language is meant to support the protestors, though, it loses the overall message and frames the protestors as juvenile and immature. Yes, the protestors are young, but calling them children only belittles their cause. Presumably, the protestors were all old enough to understand their purpose in gathering, especially since they believed so firmly in it that they would continue even to the point of being doused with pepper spray. College students are not children. They are allowed to make informed political decisions in elections. Their opinions should be respected, whether they appear in the form of a ballot at the voting booth or in a peaceful protest.

The use of pepper spray by the UC-Davis police officers shows a similar disregard for the students’ message. The students were acting reasonably, if disobediently. A more effective approach to the problems that the students may have been creating would have been to arrest the students. A New York Times article reported that police officers did arrest ten students on misdemeanor charges on the grounds that the students were unlawfully assembled. These students were later released. To me, this is completely justifiable. If the students were breaking the law, then they must face the legal consequences. Following the appropriate legal route, students are able to present a message and not have the message completely overridden by claims of police brutality.

Incidents such as the one at UC-Davis remind us that the punishment does not always fit the crime. The use of pepper spray on peaceful protestors is wrong and, further, does nothing to resolve the conflict. That said, protestors are not above the law. Being politically active and knowledgeable is important to any democracy, but actions must be restricted to the confines of the law or else protestors must accept the ensuing legal ramifications. If the students are old enough to be politically active, then they are old enough to face the consequences of their actions.

Elizabeth DeBusk Elizabeth DeBusk Elizabeth is a senior at the College of William and Mary. As an English and Linguistics double major, her interests include the effects of media on culture, as well as social perceptions based on speech and language usage. Elizabeth served as Opinions Editor at The Flat Hat, the student newspaper at the College, for two years. She is currently the writer for The Flat Hat's unsigned staff editorial.

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