Class conflict at UC Davis

23/11/2011 § 5 Comments

I was dismayed but not shocked at what happened at Berkeley. Not for nothing is it called Bezerkley. UC Davis, on the other hand? Davis is a cow town. Middle of nowhere. Land grant university. Famous for its bike lanes. I had at least one friend get ticketed for bicycling under the influence — it’s that kind of place.

Now, the Pepper Spray Cop has become an internet meme. For analysis of visual images, I often go to BagNewsNotes. They have several posts on the Davis events and how they are being re-presented.

This picture and ones like it are becoming iconic (although I’m not sure what they are iconic of).

Back in October, TVHE had some home truths for the Occupy movement in NZ, and some of those points apply to the US situation, too. This photo demonstrates how complex the economic and political situation really is, and how naive/narcissistic the Occupiers are.

The photo contains clear class markers that show the gulf between the policeman and the students.

  • The beer gut and the moustache mark the policeman as working class. Fat is a class issue, and has been linked to poverty and low levels of knowledge/education. The moustache is a signifier of working-class masculinity — at least in the US.
  • The students have upper middle class markers. Just to take the woman’s legs in jeans in the middle: she is wearing duck boots. These are preppy shoes, ‘preppy’ meaning ‘prep school kids’ or those who aspire to be them. That style is sold by the likes of L.L. Bean, not K-Mart or Target. She is also, of course, slim.
  • And let’s not forget, these are UC students — the students who did well in high school and are being prepared for successful careers (California has a clear pecking order of tertiary institutions).

Why am I pointing out these details? They show the complexity of the situation. This isn’t simply a conflict between the 99% and the 1%. Society has many cleavages, and the Occupy movement is causing fractures along several of them. Income/wealth is one of them, but class, gender, age, ethnicity, geography, education, and attitude towards hierarchy are also in play.

The other cleavage, frankly, is expectations. These students expect/expected something more than they think they are getting. We can argue about the rightness of their expectations another time. These students believe that they should have a bright future with interesting, well-paid work and secure employment. Because those expectations are not being met, they are willing to fight the power and take a face-full of pepper spray. Those expectations are a privilege of the upper middle class. The biggest class marker of all is the demand to have their expectations met.

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§ 5 Responses to Class conflict at UC Davis

  • Sarah says:

    I have to say that the whole class conflict issue is periodically brought up at my job. My boss, the iconic corner-office senior partner, is from a working class background in Detroit, while his children all have every advantage handed to them on a silver platter (there’s much mocking over whether they know how to do laundry, cook, clean, etc.). His senior associate is the product of immigrant parents, and he also worked his way up. He likes to mock the partner’s evident struggle with providing for his children and enjoying his lifestyle while understanding that others, as he did, do not have enough. It is interesting listening to the two of them discuss events and views, since they are also at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

    Having said that, there have been a lot of discussions about police feeling that they are entitled to do whatever they want, if someone is acting in a way that they don’t like. Like you said, there are intricate layers in the conflict, and it will be interesting to see where this goes. Will there be a middle class much longer, or is the U.S. going to keep steering itself to a two-class system?

  • Eric says:

    I think that class doesn’t quite get at what makes this ‘iconic’. rather it is about the naked display of power. You have not just a cop, but a police lieutenant- someone who always expects to get his way, and who generally has the full force of the the state backing him wearing a militarized uniform callously assaulting a bunch of college kids for the sin of peacefully sitting in a line on a sidewalk in the middle of campus, What struck me from the beginning was the complete lack of emotion on the cops face- for all you can tell from his eyes, it is just another day at the office.

    My take is that it is this display of arrogance of power that has made this transcendent. In many ways I would compare this to the photo of the summary execution of the suspected Viet Cong guerrilla during that era.

    My guess also, from a non-Californian is that most of the country doesn’t see UC-Davis as an upper tier/class institution- it isn’t Berkeley or UCLA, so therefore it is lower on the totem pole of state colleges- maybe not as low as Cal. state whatever, but still, not the creme de la creme.

    • Bill says:

      Oh, certainly, the class aspects aren’t as prominent as the use of power or the ‘another day at the office’ attitude. Those are the things that have made this image resonate. But, I think the image does display the complexity of the situation, including class issues.
      Interesting to get your non-Californian view on the image of UCD. Of course, the people in the photo would be aware of the pecking order, even if it is less important to people who see the photo.

      • Eric says:

        I’m still not totally sold on the class aspect. If there is class conflict it is not because the college kids are ‘haves’ and the cop is a ‘have not’ but rather because the college kids can see that their chance at becoming a ‘have’ have dwindled to nearly nothing- in fact, I’d argue that the class roles are reversed- the cop has a pretty secure, presumable reasonably well paying job- the college kids are looking at using their bachelor’s to compete for a barista job at Starbucks.

        having said all that- you are definitely correct that all the participants at UCD would be well aware of the pecking order in the CA higher education system.

        this is totally devoid of evidence, but I wonder what extent town-gown conflict played into this? it seems that it is an awfully rare college campus- at any level of achievement- where there isn’t a fair level of mistrust between the students and the long term residents…

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