One of the many images uploaded to the Pepper Spraying Cop tumblr

The University of California, Davis, where I teach, has long been popular with parents looking for a safe and sequestered life for their children, deterred by the history of student radicalism at Berkeley or Santa Cruz. Until the weekend, the only spraying known to be going on at Davis was on the university farm (it was founded as an agricultural college). Last week a small rally was organised partly in protest at the recent violence of the Berkeley campus police force, which set about dispersing a peaceful occupation with night sticks. The chancellor (who was in China at the time) described it as ‘nudging’, but it looked – and by all accounts felt – like vicious beating. But now other California campus are rallying in support of the Davis students.

On Friday 18 November, a UC Davis police officer in full riot gear was filmed calmly walking up and down a small line of seated students and dousing them at close range and in the face with military-grade pepper spray. On the great scale of global violence, this was nothing. It was not Tahrir Square, or Homs, or Oakland, Seattle or New York. In terms of numbers – 50 protesters, 35 police, 11 arrests – it wasn’t even Berkeley. But the footage has gone everywhere and almost everyone who sees it is outraged. How has this happened?

First, the video smacks of the banality of violence, if not of evil. The officer has the nonchalant demeanour of someone watering a flowerbed. Who knows what he really thought or felt (Erroll Morris’s film about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure, shows that we cannot make simple assumptions about such things). It is how he looks that counts, and he looks like an absurdly overdressed soldier calmly brutalising a dozen lightly clothed young people.

Second, Davis’s chancellor, like her counterpart at Berkeley, made early remarks about having no option but to ask the police to ‘assist’ in the removal of the tent camp, invoking health and safety regulations. The students had been pepper-sprayed, it seemed, to protect them from themselves. Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the tents of the small Occupy Davis movement have been pitched in a city park for over a month, with no violence, no health hazard, and no significant interference from the city police department.

It didn’t help that the UC Davis police chief was reported as being ‘proud’ of her officers’ handling of the situation. Like most US universities, Davis maintains its own police force, employing (as of 2009) 101 people (including administrators), far more than the largest academic departments. The officer wielding the spray is on record as earning $110,000 in 2010, more than all but the better paid full professors. The idea of a campus police force, established across the UC system in 1947, came about to reflect jurisdiction over university property and, perhaps, to apply somewhat more tolerant standards to minor student misdemeanours than might be expected from the public force.

But if this was ever the case, it has definitively changed. Students of various non-majoritarian or dissenting groups have consistently complained about the campus police and have made claims of racial profiling and threatening behaviour; it’s got worse since 9/11. People who wear a uniform and body armour and carry a gun can all too readily imagine themselves as homeland heroes. How much, I wonder – at a time when many professors have given up their telephones – has the UC Davis force spent on paint guns, pepper spray, riot shields, tasers and so on, and how often do they get to use them? It must be frustrating to have so many toys and never get to play with them.

Huge increases in tuition fees are central to the protests on campus. Once upon a time the promise of better-paying jobs might have convinced students that it was worth going into debt to get a top-ranked education. In the present economy this is not a persuasive argument. Many are objecting to what they rightly see as the incremental privatisation of public education, which will eventually produce universities that all look the same: the poorest students who make the academic cut will be covered by financial aid, and everyone else will pay huge fees. Tuition at UC now stands at around $13,000 (it was $6400 in 2003-04) and according to some projections could double by 2015, without fully addressing the radical shortfall in state funding that has caused the problem. Even $25,000 may look like a relative bargain compared to the top private schools, but it is a massive shift in the ethos of the public university.

But the fees crisis has for the moment been overshadowed by police brutality. The rough treatment of a young woman arrested here during a 2009 demonstration made the local news, but much has changed since then. The pepper-spraying incident was one of a series of similar actions in other cities: a photograph of an 84-year-old woman in Seattle shortly after being sprayed in the face has circulated widely. Pepper spray is nasty stuff, and has in at least one court case been judged to violate constitutional protections. Its use here certainly goes well beyond what UCD procedures authorise as ‘reasonable’ and ‘necessary’ force. A retired Philadelphia police captain interviewed on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC professed himself ‘profoundly shocked’ at the Davis footage. Maddow made the argument that pepper spray is one of a burgeoning array of non-lethal weapons that actually encourage more violence because they are non-lethal. Few officers would shoot a student passively sitting on the ground. In a highly militarised culture obsessed with high-tech weapons and actively involved in using them all over the world, it is not surprising that an officer in an unthreatening situation should resort to some sort of violence. His training may tell him one thing, but his culture tells him another.

Many people are now asking why universities should maintain paramilitary forces answering only to their own internal cultures and apparently all-too-informal protocols. There is a move to get the police off the campus, to establish a sanctuary space, or to devise some form of less militarised surveillance and enforcement. Things do not always go wrong. According to Cathy Davidson, Duke has tolerated a tent city since 1986, when students set one up to keep their place in line for scarce basketball tickets. Basketball is thought to be a healthy obsession, political protest is not: the health and safety standards seem to be adjusted accordingly.

But protest is not what it was. Students now convene not just a demonstration but a general assembly; they have mastered the protocols of the Occupy movement, with its hand signals and mass repetition of key statements to perform collective responsibility. They have also mastered political theatre and the globalising technologies of social media. After a press conference at Davis on Saturday, students lined the walkway and sat in dramatic silence as the chancellor left the building on what has been called a ‘walk of shame’; this footage too has been widely seen.

Strategies of non-violent mass communication and resistance have been thoroughly learned and are applied with imagination and wit. The sneering humour of New Gingrich telling the Occupy movement to ‘get a job, right after you take a bath’ pales in comparison. The students are, in every way, and like so many of the 99 per cent, light years ahead of him and of the police in their choice of political vocabularies. That is one of the reasons they think they are winning, and why they may be right.