I wrote the poem at the bottom of this reminder-piece back in 2011, not long after the infamous “pepper-spray” incident that will go on to define the University of California-Davis. I didn’t post it at the time for reasons of professional prudence: for a young professor on the tenure-track job market, there is no such thing as academic freedom: being labeled as too much of a “rabble-rouser” is a sure way not to get shortlisted, and at the time, I thought I was going to be an English professor.
It’s been nearly four and half years, now, since Lt. John Pike, after allegedly declaring “leave them. I want to spray these kids“, casually walked up a line of unarmed students sitting on the ground and sprayed them, point-blank, in the eyes, with a can of Defense Technology 56895 MK-9 Stream, 1.3% Red Band pepper spray—a military grade riot-control chemical agent that’s rated for use on crowds at an effective range of 18-20 feet.
A brief historical digression: despite the observation of the US Army that this stuff can cause “[m]utagenic effects, carcinogenic effects, sensitization, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as possible human fatalities,” it was approved for use in the hands of people like Mr. Pike mainly thanks to a series of FBI approvals in 1991, despite the reservations of the U.S. Military. In 1993, the head of the FBI’s Less-than-Lethal Weapons Program and chief of pepper-spray testing and research, special agent Thomas W. W. Ward, was fired and sentenced to two months in prison for taking kickbacks from pepper-spray manufacturers. He was the guy with approval authority when this stuff, which is banned for use in WAR under Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention, was OK’ed for use by numerous public safety agencies as a result of the FBI tests he oversaw. Make of that what you will. But I digress.
Mr. Pike, whom I ought to refer to from here on out simply as “the assailant,” was never criminally prosecuted for this. The charges were declined by the District Attorney’s Office of #YOLO County, an office that well and truly lived up to its name in the matter. Moreover, on top of his salary of $119,067—which, believe me, is a lot more than many real police officers make risking their lives to stop real crimes—he was awarded $38,055 in compensation for his psychiatric injury and trauma as a result of the incident and its repercussions.
(This is, by the way, 8 grand north of what the victims were paid in their settlement. But I continue to digress).
Shortly after this assault on the students of UC Davis, it fell to the university’s then-and-still chancellor Linda Katehi, who was once known for being the provost in charge of admissions at the Unviersity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign during the unethical admissions practices called the “Clout” scandal. She’s more lately known for padding out her salary of $424,360 by double-dipping with DeVry Education Group and textbook giant John Wiley & Sons, was forced to speak on the issue, and especially on her callous, hateful, barbaric decision to order what was essentially an armed military-grade response to a student expression of free speech. A generic damage-control letter, no doubt written for her by committee, was issued on November 20, 2011; and the following day, in an address to students, she reached beyond the pale to invoke, as if in her defense, the events of 17th of November, 1973—the tragic date of the Athens Polytechnic Uprising, an infamous and bloody date in the history of higher education. On that day, a Greek military junta rolled a tank and their troops onto the campus of Athens Polytechnic, and slaughtered 24 people at a student protest against their dictatorial rule.
“I was there,” says the Greek-born Katehi, who is quick to name-drop the massacre by virtue of being a freshman at Athens Polytechnic at the time of the massacre. It was a rhetorical master stroke to exploit the victims of this disaster to save her own bacon—one that simultaneously lessened the supposed affront against human dignity and civil liberties she authorized by comparison (hey, come on, nobody really died) and fabricated a phony kinship with the student protestors against whom she authorized a response that strikes me as nothing short than a mass terror attack. It is, if anything, an ironic betrayal of the principles that any thinking witness of the Athens Polytechnic massacre should have learned. It is the essence of hypocrisy to invoke the heroes who gave their lives for principles to which UC Davis’s administration has been diametrically opposed—principles to which recent evidence wafting from Katehi’s office shows that it continues to be opposed.
In a number of subsequent appearances, with nothing else of substance in her damage-control kit, Katehi saw fit to name-drop the honoured dead at Athens Polytechnic again and again. It must have been working, on some level, to form the backbone of her public-relations propaganda. And yet it’s a doubly filthy hypocrisy when juxtaposed against her involvement that very year in an “International Committee on Higher Education in Greece,” a committee whose report ended the “university asylum” law, in place since soon after the Athens Polytechnic massacre, which kept students and campuses safe from armed crackdowns.
Political journalist Mark Ames, who certainly has more knowledge of the twists and turns of that particular scandal than I do, will tell you all about it in his gently-worded article, “How UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi Brought Oppression Back to Greece’s Universities.” But his position is particularly and convincingly clear that Katehi has no business selfishly invoking the martyrs of an historic fight she just happened to be attending class nearby, particularly when every public action she takes as an administrator is a slap in the face of what they were fighting for. Her invocation of the Athens Polytechnic massacre should not merely remind us that she was once a student there: it should remind us of why students like hers have protests, and why every university and college campus should be a place free from violence and safe for dissent.
I maintain that simply “being there” isn’t enough to count yourself among the heroes. Buying a front-row ticket to a Rolling Stones concert doesn’t make you a member of the Rolling Stones, either. But even assuming (generously!) that she was once on the side of the martyrs, she is now firmly on the side of the tank, the side of the gun, the side of violence against young people, the side of crushing freedom with force and with fear, and then overwriting it with propaganda. That is what the present chancellor of UC Davis stands for. Present donors to the school, and members of the UC Board of Regents, and above all others prospective students, would do well to remember this.
There was a time that a terrorist didn’t have to belong to a specific faith, use a specific kind of weapon, or commit a certain kind of crime: it was simply a general word for a person who used violence and fear to accomplish the goals of a particular ideology or politics. Chancellor Katehi is lucky those days are past.
So in the wake of that disgusting wave of events, I wrote this poem and shelved it. I was heavily into my dissertation at the time, reading heavily in Lord Byron—and it was only natural that he ought to exert a considerable influence on the poem, being himself a rebel of the Greek Independence movement. He may have been an Englishman by blood, but he is closer in kinship to those Greek youths who died on the battlefield of the university campus than Katehi will ever be, even if her feet walked the same grounds. Since the dawn of Western civilization, Greece has been almost perpetually at the centre of two things in the West: one one hand, higher education and the arts, and on the other, war and political strife. Byron and Katehi both walked those fields. Both saw a noble country laid low by strife. Where Byron bled, Katehi fled.
I’ve held off on posting this poem for what I thought at the time (and maybe they were at the time) were feelings of professional integrity and decency. At the very least, it seemed a risk to my academic precarity, and a potential sacrifice of my chances at ever leaving that precarity behind for fair terms of employment and fair support & security. That ship has since sailed. I have never and will never abandon the Humanities themselves, but I have been compelled to walk away from my lifelong dream of becoming a university English professor by two things: first, the combination of unsustainable living conditions; and second, the ongoing heartbreak of watching far, far too many toxic administrators like Linda Katehi making ill-advised open war against the principles of higher education from positions of institutional power, who do so with the support of too many reticent apologists and governors with something to gain from the continued despoilment of higher education, especially in the arts and letters.
This general heartbreak is something I will write at length on in the future. I could write a book at this point (Divorcing the Humanities seems like a catchy marketable title; any takers at a major press?). I will come back to it. For now, I enjoy for the first time since entering grad school what true academic freedom must feel like: the freedom to say what I think, and to mean it, even if it’s controversial, even if it’s professionally gauche, even if it means that earning tenure at a hotbed of anti-student violence like Davis is not in my academic future.
My academic future, if I have one, lies in law school now, to which I applied and was quietly admitted in the long months before my last update. I won’t deny that an insider’s view of the decline of universities at the hands of corrupt and exploitative administrators was a significant factor in this career direction. Big-money law may look sexy on American TV (though I’m aware I bear a closer resemblance to Jimmy McGill than Harvey Specter, inside and out); but the raw deal faculty and especially students get at the hands of the unethical millionaires who are rightly their servants has compelled me to see this particular battlefield as one in which there are not many specialists, and in which there’s a whole lot of work to be done. I have always cared for the well-being of my students and colleagues; and past a point there’s only so much business as usual a humble adjunct professor can endure. Toiling on the farm of higher education is not easy or well-paying work, but it’s work we love. No farmer really wants to leave his home and go off to war. But if we don’t, that field might not be there to come home to. Such are the times we live in as academics. Very well. Cry havoc, and all that.
In that spirit, with a shift into a professional field where i’m judged more on my commitment to principles of justice than my ability to keep my head down and keep the peace in a department whose funding is forever under siege from on high, I’m able to haul this poem out and dust it off. It’s especially timely, given that just today Linda Katehi is back in the news for spending $175,000 in taxpayer money to erase the UC Davis attack from history altogether. The next time she mentions that little memorial plaque to the Athens Polytechnic Massacre, let’s remember that her actions put her firmly on the side of those who would tear that plaque off and forget their sacrifice completely the moment it reflected badly on her. This entire article, and my dredging up of the few scribblings that follow, is my contribution to the effort to make sure her vile attempt to erase the bravery of UC Davis’s students from the annals of history is a spectacular failure.
Let us remember now and forever, and let us remind others as loudly as we can, that on November 18, 2011, peaceful students at the University of California Davis were attacked by a man under Linda Katehi’s riot-control mandate, using weapons that are banned for use in war under Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Let us remember that they were unarmed, and sitting on the ground with their heads bowed. Let us remember that it’s those student protestors, not Katehi, who have a kinship to the martyrs of Athens Polytechnic, and whose fight against her new breed of totalitarian control over higher education is our fight, too, and a fight that’s only beginning.
The more you know about Greece, about the Polytechnic, about Lord Byron, about Davis, about Katehi’s abandoned field of electrical engineering, the more you’ll get from my scribblings below.
An Ode to Chancellor Linda Katehi
under whose mandate students at UC Davis were attacked, on the 18th of November, 2011, using chemical weapons
Upon a time, no “pepper-spray” was hot
As that red blood which Hellenistic veins
Could scarce contain, so eagerly men fought
To be divested of it. What remains
Of Theseus, of Dion? All for nought
These heroes strove, it seems—but strove in vain:
To their hubristic ends, one despot falls again.
Linda Katehi, answer! Where survives
The spirit of their courage in your rule?
The twenty-four young Greeks who gave their lives
At Athens Polytechnic, once your school,
Have died—at last the sordid truth arrives—
To be a coward’s footnote in a speech
Defending (poorly!) your barbaric overreach.
Where in the misplaced snarl, the phony tear
With which you loosed your brutes upon the crowd,
Condemned to sickness, agony, and fear
Your unarmed, peaceful students, who were proud
Enough to let you walk, without a cheer
Or shouted slur to waiting SUV—
Where lurks in you the valour of Thermopylae?
Where in your bones, where under coiffed bouffant
Of dirty gold you wrung from student fees,
Where in your bloated purse, for greed, for want,
For wicked glee, for craven, cringing ease
And comfort, have you buried with your cant
And rancor all the heroes of the past,
That violence be your twisted legacy at last?
Penelope, perhaps, still clings to life,
Deep in the darkest hollows of your soul:
It is unfair to rate you as a wife
Or mother (though one sick branch rots the whole),
But she informs your base response to strife:
Recant the weave that you yourself have spun,
And pray no suitor sees the ill work you have done.
By what sad right of blind genetic chance
Dare you invoke the Polytechnic youth
As if they were your brethren? What romance
Has festered in your mind to club the truth
Into submission? What lies could advance
Your claim of kinship to those Greeks of old
Who, faced with tyrants of your skulking breed, stood bold?
What miswired neurons in your shorting mind
Could prompt you to believe your own defense?
Your most electric prose, thrice underlined,
Will overrun no fuse of common sense.
We speak best with our actions. You defined
Your place in myth with actions speaking hate:
Now empty words will set no crooked actions straight.
But try! The sleeping Byrons of your school,
Those students, teachers, will return askance
Your words with words a thousand times more cruel,
And, finding you well “Beyond Tolerance,”
Will shame you as a coward and a fool,
Then, learning empty words are not enough,
Like Byron, set their hopes and hands on stronger stuff.
Linda Katehi, answer and confess!
There was no reason to release the hounds.
Your pow’r was absolute. No strange duress
Compelled you thus to overstep your bounds.
You did this in your wrath, in eagerness
To crush dissent. You wish to crush it still.
Well, now all thinking minds unite: was that your will?