UC Davis: Official 'spin' crumbles in the face of "too many videos"

UC Davis' pepper-spray videos have gone viral around the web, proving citizen journalism can allow us to form our own views of raw footage collected in the thick of it.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

1970: Kent State shootings: One iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by chance of a student killed by the unfathomable brutality of National Guard troops; some no older than the students they killed. One person, one camera.

1991: Rodney King arrest: An African-American man who was beaten relentlessly by police with batons, showing the cruel brutality of Los Angeles' law enforcement and utter disregard of then societally-developing race relations. One person, one camera.

2011: UC Davis pepper-spray assault: Around fifty students at the California university sprayed at point-blank range by police, emphasising the disproportionate violence to what was a peaceful, orchestrated protest. One police officer, dozens of cameras.

In the run-up to last weekend, students at the University of California, Davis told the world through a deafening silence how to hold a peaceful, arguably beautiful protest. In so many cases, its underlying message can be drowned out by the rage of violence, disruption and civil disorder.

Students have long been portrayed in a particular way, as lay-about good-for-nothings, with little interest in anything beyond their own politics, causing disruption for anti-fur movements and sleeping in until late afternoon. Not to mention, these 'leeches' continue to put strain on the financial system they seem to complain about.

But the university students at UC Davis, disaffected by decisions made by the state, the university and those who they thought they could trust, taught the world one important, crucial lesson in post-modern principles of today's reporting.

The truth will out.

On Friday afternoon, UC Davis students sat down along a pathway and linked arms, peacefully defiant in the face of law enforcement, in that they would not be intimidated and had a right to protest without causing disorder or committing violence.

The police were then called in to clear the student protesters, after the chancellor Linda Katehi claimed they were trespassing on university property. It was Katehi who ordered the UC David police to evict the protesters.

Then this happened.

Within hours of the -- 'incident' seems to trivialise it -- attack on the students, UC Davis police were forced to issue a press statement defending their actions.

"Students were given warnings to leave their tents [pitched on campus] by 3 p.m.", it said. "The protest initially involved about 50 students", Annette Spicuzza, UC Davis' police chief said. "Some were wearing protective gear and some held batons".

The final insult was when she said: "Officers were forced to use pepper spray when students surrounded them", adding, "There was no way out of the circle".

It makes one see there could have been at least two sides to the story. Perhaps the students were being unruly, or defiant, or armed and ready to commit violence. It was possible, and had been previously witnessed in England during the student protests.

But the statement was spin, and the spin doctor who wrote that statement was clearly unaware that citizens had recorded the event in full, and could in no way document the blasé attitude of the police officer, spraying the students at point-blank range with a thick fog of violent pepper-spray.

The video had been published to YouTube, where it has amassed nearly a million viewers in just over 24 hours, but clearly had not been seen by those who released the pro-police spin.

The next day at a news conference, describing the video images as "chilling", Katehi said that a task-force would be set up to investigate the actions of the police during the clearly peaceful demonstration.

Katehi reportedly refused to leave the building she was in, after a large group of UC Davis students mobilised outside. Chanting, "we are peaceful" and "just walk home" in a bid to see their university's leader, the students at least watched Katehi leave the building.

The students, as you will see, engaged again in protest fitting for the occasion.

It was not what you heard, but what you did not hear. A deafening silence of hushed voices but seething anger. The video was painfully awkward to watch as an outside observer, whilst equally inspiring and poignant. The contempt could be sliced through the air from the disgust felt by the students there.

The rise of citizen journalism has been a contentious issue amongst many. But as I call it, "@breakingnews culture", based along the Twitter feed of the MSNBC Breaking News account, it gives citizens around the world chance to bring raw, unedited and unfettered truths to the masses. It uses citizen journalism through tweets and blog posts, mobile phone footage and other non traditionally-generated content to progress a 'legitimate' new-media news outlet.

What we see in any modern event, no matter how off the cuff or sporadic, is a sea of cameras. One report likened it to a panopticon society.

It is not 911 or 999 we call in an emergency. We do not think to engage with the situation. But what we do, as the Generation Y, is pull out our phones and start recording; documenting every second of the event for history's benefit.

Instead of being reliant on information given to the public through media channels, we are now able to instigate our own broadcasts. Immediately connected to a global audience, two YouTube videos alone are prime examples of how witness reports to scenarios like this are no longer chained to censorship or secrecy.

This cultural shift allows people to see and feel themselves how it was in a situation like this. More than the printed word or carefully-trained television reporter, people have more freedom to make up their own minds and frame opinion around their own personal experiences.

In this case, and in so many more to come, the police and government -- for all the money, tax revenue and intelligence that Western governments have at their disposal -- seemingly cannot get their heads around a simple enough concept that wherever one is, someone is watching and recording.

For years, we have had to rely on information that is presented to us. Often, it would be from the sources that be, relayed to the middle-men and women of the media. But because we generate vast quantities of the media ourselves, and release it of our own volition and accord, we trust ourselves and our partners as members of the citizen journalism collective.

But as the masses collect vital citizen-based intelligence, it is the normal citizens of this world who use Facebook and Twitter, and other social media platforms and networks with our colleagues, friends and family, who make our own decisions about the news of the day.

As citizen journalism offers instant accountability to the actions made by those in authority, it gives us greater control over what we believe and consume as end-users of this world we live in.

Spin no longer works.


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