As some faculty members called for her ouster, the chancellor of UC Davis launched an inquiry Saturday into the pepper-spraying of apparently peaceful Occupy Davis protesters by campus police.
A video of the Friday incident that went viral on the Web showed a police officer dousing the protesters with a canister of pepper spray as they sat huddled on the ground. The police had been attempting to clear the university’s Quad of tents and campers.
Faculty and students reacted with outrage. Nathan Brown, an assistant professor of English, said in an interview that the episode was the latest example of “the systematic use by UC chancellors of police brutality” to suppress protests.
In an open letter, he wrote: “Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students. Students remained on the ground, now writhing in pain, with their arms linked.”
Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi initially did not criticize the police, but she said Saturday that she had since watched the video and reviewed more accounts from the scene.
“It left me with a very bad feeling of what went on,” Katehi said in a telephone interview. “There was enough information to show that we need to take a serious look at what happened.”
She said she authorized police to remove the tents, but not to use the pepper spray in the manner shown on the video. “Absolutely not,” she said.
In a statement announcing the formation of a task force to investigate the matter, Katehi said Friday “was not a day that would make anyone on our campus proud.”
“The use of pepper spray as shown on the video is chilling to us all and raises many questions about how best to handle situations like this.”
At a news conference Saturday, UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza said the decision to use pepper spray was made at the scene.
“The students had encircled the officers,” she said. “They needed to exit. They were looking to leave but were unable to get out.”
Geoffrey Wildanger, a graduate student in art history, said he was sprayed “in my ears and my nose. It hurts a lot. You feel like your whole body is on fire.”
He said the police overreacted. “The cops weren’t threatened in any way.”
Two students were treated at a hospital and released, and several others were arrested, officials said.
The Davis Faculty Assn. issued a letter Saturday demanding that Katehi step down. “The Chancellor’s role is to enable open and free inquiry, not to suppress it,” the association wrote, calling Katehi’s approval of police force to remove the Occupy Davis tents a “gross failure of leadership.”
The board of the statewide Council of UC Faculty Associations agreed, saying in a statement Saturday that “police violence” has been employed against protesters at UCLA, UC Berkeley and Cal State Long Beach.
Board member Mark LeVine, a UC Irvine history professor, said the Davis incident left him “shocked, almost speechless. It looked like a fire-extinguisher-size can of mace sprayed into the face of peaceful students.”
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Occupy protesters and police seemed to reach a detente Saturday that allowed at least 100 tents to remain on the streets. To avoid an immediate eviction, protesters agreed to thin their ranks and keep the encampments clean. Police and public works employees did clear out some tents on Market Street and along the Embarcadero.
Times staff writer Maria La Ganga and the Associated Press contributed to this report.