by Ami Sommariva and Louis Warren
An interview with radical student activist Ian Lee
While protecting a tent encampment of student protesters on 18 November 2011, UC Davis freshman Ian Lee was pepper-sprayed by campus police. Boom assistant editor Ami Sommariva and Boom executive editor Louis Warren sat down with Lee to talk about his experience with the Occupy movement, his radicalization, and the relationship between activism and education.
Ami Sommariva: Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?
Ian Lee: I’m from Temple City, which is a suburb of LA, a really small suburb east of LA. I was born and raised there, went through the whole school system. A quiet Asian kid growing up in a suburb … that was me. When applying for colleges, I really wanted to do environmental work. I don’t know if I still want to do that, but that’s why I chose UCD. Both of my parents are from Hong Kong. They came to the US near the end of the Vietnam War. My dad was part of seventies community organizing after the war. He entertained ideas of becoming an artist.
Sommariva: How did you get involved with the Occupy movement? Where did it all begin for you, and how did you end up on the Quad that day?
Lee: At that time, I saw myself as a standard Democrat, a regular little sort of person. Then this Occupy movement started happening and I started to hear about it from classes, from certain professors and friends, and so I decided I should probably check this out. I was involved with the original campus marches; not as an organizer or anything, but participating in part of it. I was involved because it’s something that interested me and that’s not because I understood anything. I didn’t live at the camp in the beginning.
Louis Warren: Did you help set up the Occupation on the Quad?
Lee: Yes, but I didn’t sleep there because I wasn’t serious about anything at the time. Then, on November 18th, I heard through Facebook that cops had shown up on the campus. That was really disconcerting to me, and so I just rushed over from the dorms. And that’s when I started to really get into it and really understand. People were getting arrested. I linked arms with the people forming a protective block around the tents. Eventually, I found myself in the front row.
Sommariva: You said that before all this happened you started hearing about the Occupy movement from professors and friends, and it interested you. What interested you about it?
Lee: Well, you should understand that at the time, a guy who’s just been in college a couple of days … he doesn’t really understand what’s happening. I was just this sort-of-Democrat, and apparently there’s this liberal—or what’s perceived to be liberal—huge movement going on. I think: Oh, I should probably get involved with this and try to find out what’s going on. And that was my perspective. At the time—and I have different views now—but at the time, it seemed to me to be a sort of symbolic protesting as to what happened at Berkeley when the students were trying to defend their encampment there. And also sort of symbolic protests against tuition increases.
Sommariva: Those were the factors that motivated you to rush right out from the dorms?
Lee: Well, yeah. But also, I didn’t and still don’t understand about why riot cops should be called down to a tent encampment. It didn’t make sense to me, and so I wanted to protect that camp.
Warren: So, you guys linked arms to protect the tents. What did you see then?
Lee: Students were screaming. People were being thrown around. Just a lot of chaos caused by, of course, the presence of riot cops.
Sommariva: They were being thrown?
Lee: Or pushed aside.
Warren: And the cops were in full riot gear?
Lee: Right. They had different sorts of guns, batons, those plastic handcuff things, fully dressed in black and helmets.
I couldn’t really see from my perspective, but what I assume happened was that the cops went through the protestors and took down certain tents. There was a lot of screaming and hectic chaos. The circle of students kept on tripping and tripping and tripping, so we think it’s a good idea to sit down. That’s a common way to de-escalate a potentially violent situation, so we sit down.
And Lieutenant Pike [the officer in charge] says we should know we shouldn’t move. He stepped over us and pepper-sprayed us. I’m really angry about that. I mean, I was furious. I just got assaulted by riot cops for no reason. Before the pepper-spray incident happened, it was my understanding that we would maybe be shot with rubber bullets and that was really scary to me. My heart was just shaking like crazy.
Warren: Why was that your understanding? Did somebody threaten to shoot you?
Lee: Lieutenant Pike came over to the person sitting next to me and said, we are going to shoot you—or something to the effect of that—if you don’t leave. And so that’s why I thought that we were going to be shot with rubber bullets. You can’t really think when you’re that afraid.
Warren: So then they pepper-sprayed you. What happened?
Lee: There were shouts from the crowd that we should close our eyes, so I closed my eyes and there was this intense burning and it’s like fire on my face and in my eyes. Then I was actually pulled out of the chain and …
Warren: Who pulled you out?
Lee: Well, I didn’t know at the time, but in looking at videos, it was Lieutenant Pike. He pulled me out first and he pinned me to the ground for a while. But I didn’t resist.
Lee: Face-down. Like, while I was totally incapacitated, which doesn’t make sense to me.
Warren: The degree of violence in the story you’re telling, it’s just so astonishing.
Lee: Yeah. The entire last couple of months are totally absurd on so many levels. So, since I’m pinned on the ground, I don’t resist. He decides after a while, hey, I’m not gonna pin this kid down; I’m gonna pin that guy down, and that guy ended up actually being arrested. And he was pepper-sprayed. Like, why are you trying to arrest this kid who is not really resisting and is totally incapacitated? And to my understanding he apparently wasn’t even treated in the police car.
Warren: In the video of the events on YouTube, one of the most astonishing things is that you guys don’t appear to move after being coated with pepper spray. You do not budge. I noticed some of you begin to slump, but you didn’t move until people come over and start pulling you apart. Why didn’t you move?
Lee: I might not call it meditation, but I was concentrating really hard to try to slow my heartbeat. Also, we were committed to maintaining our ground. Someone who eventually would become a good friend led me to a firefighter who cleaned out my eyes. I went back to the dorm. I took a shower and my face got on fire again. I went to the Student Health and Wellness Center, and got treated, and that was the extent of my day.
Sommariva: Then the huge rally on Monday [21 November] happened. How did that come about? I mean, it was a huge event that seemed very well organized. There must have been work involved in putting that together.
Lee: Well, at the time, I didn’t know anybody, but incidentally I sort of suspected that a huge rally would happen and so I prepared a speech. What happened on Monday with the rally was that the people who were pepper-sprayed gave presentations and speeches. I actually made the first speech. It’s a speech I somewhat regret now… . But then we reestablished the tent encampment.
Warren: Why do you regret the speech now?
Lee: The way I framed the speech was that the incident was some sort of horrific and totally unexpected breach of our First Amendment rights. But now I realize that this is common. This is part of a chain of events of UC brutality that stems from privatization and all that other jazz.
Warren: All that other jazz?
Lee: Privatization and militarization are inherently linked. Whenever oppressive economic forces are created, a military force is needed in order to maintain that.
Warren: Do you see this as part of a broader trend?
Lee: There have been attacks at UCLA, UC Irvine … There’s this pervading theme among the Occupy movement: “Make no demands.” I think the reason for this is that there is nothing the systems that we are living in can do for us. It is the existence of those systems, in the first place, that is our contention.
Sommariva: What does it feel like, at this point, to be on campus after the pepper-spraying and after all of the direct action that you’ve been involved in? Has that changed your experience of being on campus?
Lee: It’s gotten me to think more about my function as a student on a UC campus. I perceive my position differently and that has caused me to be involved with discussions and organizing. It’s become a core part of being a student for me. Without watching and participating in direct action, I would never have started the thinking process—I would have never experienced a truly painful existential crisis, I would have never realized all the contradictions that exist in our systems, I would have never started reading and thinking and reading and talking with others and reading and thinking and reading—that led to my radicalization.
Warren: And before you got to UC, you’d never thought of these things in this way? You had actually not thought of being a student in those terms before you came here?
Lee: Right. So if we’re framing this as a before and after … before, I was a student who performed in the narrative of being a student, and now, I realize that there’s something wrong with that narrative and that I need to highlight the contradictions within it. I think confrontation is a really good thing in terms of getting radical ideas out there. An example: UC Davis had a contract with US Bank that gave them a monopoly on banking services on our campus. Our student IDs, which can be used as debit cards, have the US Bank logo on them, and the bank has a lot of other advertising on campus. There was only one bank on UC Davis property, and it was a US Bank at the Memorial Union, which is the central meeting place of our campus. What some involved in Occupy UC Davis have done is to protest the bank-university partnership in front of the US Bank on campus. This protest, which became well known and led to the arrest of several protesters, spurred a lot of debate about the contradictions between the missions of public universities and private corporations. So radical tactics and direct action are useful.
Sommariva: Do you think that kind of confrontation and debate can be brought into the university classroom as a pedagogical tool?
Lee: Well, here’s the thing about direct action: when protesting the US Bank, we’re directly fighting the forces of privatization within the university. The classroom isn’t built for that.
Sommariva: What would the ideal university look like to you?
Lee: It’s a question I think about quite a lot. I’m still in my first year of college, and I’ve got a lot of research and learning ahead of me. So I can’t really answer the question of what the ideal university looks like. I can say some broad things, such as I would like to see, at the very least, radically less privatization of the university. I would like to see the university return to being a public good. Ideally, at least from my perspective right now, I would like to see all capital off campus. I don’t know what this means in terms of how universities would function in that sort of world.
Warren: What do your parents think of your work here at UC Davis, what you’ve been through, and the work you’re doing with Occupy?
Lee: Like I said, my dad was involved with seventies community organizing as a teenager. I think I’ve suddenly exceeded radicalism in terms of what my dad thought. My definition of the word “radical” is vastly different from my dad’s definition of it. I think my mom’s really uncomfortable with a lot of the things I’m doing.
I want to emphasize the complete absurdity of my narrative. This quiet Asian kid grows up in the suburbs and then goes to college for a couple of weeks and becomes part of an international news story and he’s making passionate political speeches in front of thousands of people. I mean, everything does seem absurd. I think it was in my junior year in high school that I was the treasurer for a school club called the Future Business Leaders of America. And now, I would look at this high school kid who is the treasurer of a business club and say, that guy is evil.
Warren: Is he really evil, or is he just young? It sounds like you’re saying your perspective shifted pretty remarkably after the incident on the Quad.
Lee: I am sort of skeptical of narratives where a person’s one way before some profound event, then the profound event happens and then after that he’s totally different. I’m really skeptical.
Warren: The speed and degree of change that you experienced in yourself makes you skeptical of the whole thing?
Lee: It’s something that I think about quite a lot. Sometimes you read particular stories and you’re like, this is bullshit. That’s become my life.
Sommariva: You feel as if you are a story that has already been told? A cliché?
Lee: A story that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it feels like I’m a character in a melodramatic novel: beforehand, being this quiet Asian kid and afterwards, being someone who is really sympathetic towards anarchists and radical socialist ideas after becoming an international news story. Like, that doesn’t really happen. It’s just absurd, and that’s who I am.