By Kit-Bacon Gressitt / Excuse Me, I’m Writing / Dec. 5, 2011
We are so frequently exposed to violence in the United States, most of us probably figure that, like pornography, we know violence when we see it. Enemies go to war, and we watch the carnage live on TV’s 24-hour news cycle. People physically harm each other on our streets and in our homes, and we tally their numbers with the rest of the tidy crime statistics. We replicate violent imagery in film and television, in music and video games, and eagerly consume it as entertainment. Yes, violence is pervasive, and most of us probably figure we have it pegged. But we’d be wrong.
Violence is not solely a physical act committed by one person on another, by one group on another, by one armed force on another. Violence ranges from the “Well, duh!” of, say, campus police brutality to the “WTF’s violent about that?” of, say, public budget cutting that abandons marginalized people to destitution. But we’d be wrong not to see the latter as violence. And if you have any affinity for the Occupy movement, a quick lesson in violence might be worth your while — a lesson set in the context of California’s two public university systems, Cal State University (CSU) and University of California (UC).
Let’s start with something relatively easy. This is the now infamous 18 November 2011 video shot at UC Davis, when a small group of students was pepper-sprayed directly in the face as the students were attempting to peacefully “occupy” the campus quad in solidarity with the Occupy movement and in protest of tuition fee increases.
Although the video reveals that no one struck a blow, students and their families, faculty, staff, journalists, the broader community, and even the university’s chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, recognized the situation as a violent scene. It was also an unsettling one, because the perpetrators of the violence were agents of the state: two campus police officers who did their dirty deed with disturbing nonchalance, a nonchalance that indicated their actions were anticipated and approved by a higher authority, at least in general terms if not specifically for this event. In fact, someone in the university administration thought it was appropriate to send police to a nonviolent political protest armored and armed with paramilitary gear and weapons, including the canisters of pepper spray. Come to think of it, someone in the university administration thought the purchase of paramilitary gear and weapons was an appropriate expenditure for a public university, a public university that has increased student fees by more than 50% percent in the last three years. And it was, again, increased fees that in part motivated the students to assemble and seek redress of their grievances to begin with.
The UC Davis police action is a typical example of state violence, violence that is perpetrated by the state, or an institution or some other social structure, against the people the state serves. To help explain this concept, there is a handy sociological definition of state violence, originated by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, that lends some meaning to the Davis scene. He defined violence as the cause of the difference between a person’s potential state of being and a person’s actual state of being. For example, Somalis have the potential to be well fed; instead, due primarily to failed national and global governance (the state) and secondarily to global climate change (arguably the result of the same failed governance), the actual condition for many Somalis at the moment is starvation. State violence creates that difference, it can increase the difference, and it can prevent the difference from decreasing. State violence, then, encompasses the ways that the state prevents people from achieving their potential.
If you apply this to the UC Davis scenario, you’ll find that, in the short term, the students’ potential to exercise their First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of their grievances was not realized: Police violence prevented them from achieving that potential. And the pepper spray (a nasty form of nonlethal crowd control that forcibly silences free speech until the symptoms wear off), increased the difference between the students’ potential state of comfortably enjoying a moment of peaceful protest and their actual state of temporary blindness, searing pain in their ears, eyes, noses, mouths, and airways, inflamed tissue, gagging and coughing, and difficulty breathing. This is state violence.
In the long term, all but the privileged elite among the students will inevitably be harmed by the student fee increases, the issue that was lost in the pepper spray debacle and an issue that brings us to something that might be less recognizable as violence: economics.
In this case, the rapid, repeated increase of public university tuition fees at CSU and UC is harming some students and risking harm to others — particularly those who are low-income, working-class and middleclass — by postponing and, in some cases, preventing them from achieving their academic potential and, consequently, their professional and personal development potential.
The fee increases also reflect a related type of economic violence: inequity in the distribution of public education funds, which compounds the existing inequitable access to public higher education and all the ramifications thereof. Students who suffer from the inequity and subsequent lack of education are more likely to experience greater degrees of under- and unemployment, lower quality housing and community amenities, and less access to the public and private social, economic, political and cultural benefits of U.S. residency and citizenship. Hence, these students are disproportionately hindered or prevented by CSU and UC from reaching their potential, compared to privileged students.
We could chalk this up to the troubling economic times, but we’d be wrong.
While CSU and UC leaderships have raised student fees by more than 50% in the last three years, they have also seen fit — in just the last year — to jack up management costs. Cal State San Marcos created four brand spanking new administrative positions. The UC system increased some administrative salaries by as much as 23%. And CSU voted to increase the San Diego State president’s salary by more than $100,000 at the same meeting during which they voted in a 12% tuition increase for students. All of this is growing the systems’ non-teaching management at the expense — literally — of the students it is the universities’ mission to serve. This is state violence.
And those are only two examples in higher education, two among countless examples. With the amount of violence we consume on a daily basis, we should be connoisseurs, but we are not, and this void in our understanding contributes to the state’s ability to perpetrate violence against us because we too often fail to recognize it as such; hence, we do not challenge it. But gradually people are gaining awareness. The Occupy movement is testament to this. The movement is helping turn the baffled “WTF?” into a declarative “OMG — that’s, like, violence!” People are beginning to see that the state is a ready and eager perpetrator: burdening the people with debt to fund unwarranted wars and rescue multinational corporations; failing to effectively muster emergency services to rescue low-income urban residents from natural disasters; pricing public education out of reach of the non-privileged public; and assaulting those who peacefully protest such state violence.
We might imagine that the state will never abandon using violence against the people it is intended to serve — and we can hope that we’d be wrong.