Santa Monica Protest Incident Underlines Why There Is No 'Right' to Pepper Spray Students

On Tuesday, student demonstrators at Santa Monica College in California were pepper sprayed while protesting the proposal of a two-tier funding program that would increase the cost of a single unit from $46 to $180 for in-demand courses. In the wake of the incident, some have suggested that pepper spray was an appropriate use of force by the campus police as a means to remove the protesters.

My questions is, since when did students become the villains? Since 2008, students all over the country have watched as their tuitions have risen to insupportable prices. While some have been compelled to take on more student debt, others have been forced to drop out altogether. Yet, when students protest against the abandonment of their education – try to fight for their ability to go to class and just learn – they have been made the aggressors. They have been made the villains.

As a student of a California university, on the same campus that had its own pepper spraying incident back in November, I have seen for myself the pain a campus experiences when we feels we have been betrayed by the entity we thought was there to protect us. And that, I believe, is the biggest issue contributing to the events that lead police to use unjustified force against student demonstrators: a complete disconnect between students and administrators.

Colleges and universities, in California in particular, have become machines run without the participation of students, without even the expectation of student input. Boards of Trustees and University Regents gather on a regular basis with minimal student and faculty representatives present, people that may know a thing or two about education.
There is one student representative out of eight in the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees, and, out of 17 members of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, there are zero. The 18 Regents of the University of California who are appointed by the Governor for 12-year terms include one student, usually a graduate student, who is selected by the Regents and serves for only one year.

As you can see then, where there are student representatives they seem to be merely symbols, cast there by the governing bodies to demonstrate the “inclusivity” that in reality does not exist. Instead, students are given bills and numbers without being given a voice, forcing students to impose their voice on those who get to make the decisions that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Yet, for this students are criticized. For this, for trying to have a say in their own education, students are pepper sprayed. If these boards and bodies haven’t figured it out yet, I will tell you and them what students want: they want to be heard.
If the Regents and Trustees, who are spread out all around the state of California, would hold office hours, as all faculty are required to do, and take some time to meet the students they represent, students might not have to “storm” board meetings to be heard. If all meetings were held in large public spaces with ample time for public comment (no, one hour is not enough) then maybe students wouldn’t have to interrupt them.

But even more valuable would be to change the composition of the boards themselves. Why should the hundreds of thousands of students in the California college and university systems be represented by one single student, who they did not even elect to represent them? Why should the members be appointed undemocratically for twelve-year terms?

Students need to be integrated into the decision-making bodies of colleges across the country or these protests are never going to stop. Until there is a systematic way that students are fairly represented, they are going to continue to, and have the right to continue to, make their voices heard by whatever means possible. That is the beauty of the freedom of speech.

And as for the right to pepper spray students – I don’t recall that amendment being added to our country’s Constitution.