I was writing on my blog at the time, and every time one of these incidents would happen, I was getting more and more upset, and more and more freaked out, frankly, because it was getting no media attention. The violence was escalating, and I really wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to take a student dying to dial this back.
Then the pepper-spray incident happens. The amount of police violence against student protestors in the United States dropped dramatically after that, and it has stayed at a much lower level since then.
Meyer: You have that sense from watching media coverage, and paying attention?
Johnston: Yeah, the stuff that I track—police violence against protestors is one of the half dozen or dozen elements of the campus protest scene that I’ve got my antennae up for specifically. And it’s clear that there’s less of that happening. We do see, there’s fewer building occupations, which is often where the violence takes place. But even so, my sense is very powerfully that there’s clear circumstantial evidence that decisions have been made to change the rules of engagement. UC Davis is a big part of that.
Meyer: I remember UC Davis happening too at the end of a string of UC protests, too, which were both connected to what I think of as Occupy Oakland.
Johnston: The interesting thing about Occupy is that two years before 2011, there was a string of building occupations at UC and Cal State campuses, and they called themselves Occupy California. Occupy Wall Street was, in part, not completely, an outgrowth and extension of the California stuff. UC Davis was part of that—there was a tent encampment which was one of the Occupy tactics.
Meyer: Those protests, I recall—and this may be also what got picked up and what got coverage—I remember those protests being more economic and anti-austerity than the current string of protests, which are mostly race and gender-based.
Johnston: Each case it was a matter of proportion. If we’re looking at Occupy California, there were several of those actions which were explicitly around issues of racial inclusion, particularly at the Cal State campuses. And in addition to the austerity and tuition hikes and all that, some of them were demandless protests as well—student power in the university-type questions.
You’re right that we have seen a real increased focus on racial-justice-type issues. I would say, right now, if you’re looking at the broad sweep of American student protest in 2015, the three really big recurring issues are: racial violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment, and economic access to higher education.
Actually, [Thursday] is what organizers are calling the Million Student March, which is a nationwide series of protests and marches planned for months around free higher education.
Meyer: Does it feel like racial violence and sexual assault and sexual violence, does it feel like the profile of those has increased since 2012? I remember you said on Twitter that the current set of protests were more similar to 1965 than the later Sixties. As an alumnus of Northwestern, there were also a string of protests around the early ‘90s that for us were tied to Asian-American Studies, so they obviously had a racial or ethnic component. What’s your sense of the macro-cycles here? Is this a comparable moment?