Friday, November 18, 2011

The "Bug Spray" Approach to Policing

When protesters peacefully attempt to make a point, the police at UC Davis bring out the pepper spray and douse them like you would use bug spray to kill noxious insects. Then they knee them on the ground and cuff them. Yep... that's how you handle "violent" student protest...

It is pretty obvious that these goons would happily shake the canister of Zyklon-B onto the "subhuman rats" in the Nazi extermination camps. This is the same kind of mindless robotic "policing" that allowed the police in the the US in 1942 to brutally round up Japanese Americans, forcing them to abandon their property, and put them onto "reservations" in badlands in remote America. This was a blatant disregard for Constitutional rights. It is the same "policing" that turned dogs loose on young black demonstrators in the deep South in the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the use of high pressure fire hoses that peeled the skin right off kids, the use of trunchions to "crack skulls" to ensure that blacks in the Deep South would give up their fight for a right to vote, a right to share public facilities in Jim Crow racist America.

Obviously none of the lessons of the past have been learned. The police in America today carry out the same bullying and beatings and pepper-spraying. We are lucky that they haven't yet pulled a Ludlow Massacre where they set up the machine guns and then deliberately fire machine gun belt of bullets after machine gun belt. This is "justice" in America. This is the America where you have a "right" to free speech except when it is done in public or on the street or at an inconvenient time or in a manner that is considered "unsanitary" or "unsightly" by the powers that be.

And here's a bit from the UK... This is what you get when you protest there. This is a young girl's face after a "rubber bullet" has left its mark...

Get more details here.

Update 2011nov20: Here is a video of students at UC Davis shaming the chancellor of the university for the vicious "bug spraying" incident:

Here is a link to an outraged assistant professor of English, Nathan Brown, of the UC Davis faculty demanding the resignation of Katehi. It outlines the case against her for brutalizing the peaceful and legitimate protestors.

My personal view is that "ethical demonstrating" only works when those who have harmed you have a conscience and are moved by ethics. I'm not convinced that many of the elites have much of a conscience. I would like to think that they do, but I find precious little evidence of it. I find it profoundly sad that the bottom 99% have to take police abuse, beatings, and killings while those on top are only asked to "show regret" for their actions. Regret doesn't cut it for me. If Chancellor Katehi had any moral integrity, she would resign immediately and go about personally apologizing to the students of the university. Instead, the above video shows her walking past the powerless and not acknowledging them. Why should she? She is powerful. She is paid big bucks. She had a golden parachute. They are simply students who will suffer 10% unemployment when the graduate. They will be forced to "conform" to the dictates of an elitist society that believes that 0.1% should get 20% of the income and wealth of the society.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. led non-violent protests. They make great video and wonderful stories, but I remember the frustration of the youth of the 1960s in the pitiful "fruits" of a massive effort at attempting to change the powers that be. The Jim Crow laws disappeared slowly, but there were literally hundreds of deaths by truly wonderful and noble people. A sacrifice that wasn't shared by the vicious thugs who beat protesters or the brutal cops who turn dogs loose on them.

The only effective tool for change is democracy. The use of a ballot instead of a bullet. But sitting peacefully as a powerful person walks by doesn't strike me as an effective technique. I would have much preferred the crowd repeating "shame, shame, shame" or something more harsh that simply sitting and letting the symbol of power walk unmolested to her car. I suspect she laughed herself silly on the drive home in that car. She had just experiences the sharp end of Obama-style "change you can believe in". In short, a worthless, useless "peaceful" demonstration. That effort would be better spent organizing ordinary people to vote their interests in elections at all levels in society.

Update 2011nov22: Here is a bit from a post by Matt Taibbi on his Rolling Stone blog:
Glenn Greenwald’s post at Salon says this far better than I can, but I think there are undeniable conclusions one can draw from this incident. The main thing is that the frenzied dissolution of due process and individual rights that took place under George Bush’s watch, and continued uncorrected even when supposed liberal constitutional lawyer Barack Obama took office, has now come full circle and become an important element to the newer political controversy involving domestic corruption and economic injustice.

As Glenn points out, when we militarized our society in response to the global terrorist threat, we created a new psychological atmosphere in which the use of force and military technology became a favored method for dealing with dissent of any kind. As Glenn writes:
The U.S. Government — in the name of Terrorism — has aggressively para-militarized the nation’s domestic police forces by lavishing them with countless military-style weapons and other war-like technologies, training them in war-zone military tactics, and generally imposing a war mentality on them. Arming domestic police forces with para-military weaponry will ensure their systematic use even in the absence of a Terrorist attack on U.S. soil… It’s a very small step to go from supporting the abuse of defenseless detainees (including one’s fellow citizens) to supporting the pepper-spraying and tasering of non-violent political protesters.
Why is that such a small step? Because of the countless decisions we made in years past to undermine our own attitudes toward the rule of law and individual rights.


The UC Davis instant crystallized all of this in one horrifying image. Anyone who commits violence against a defenseless person is lost. And the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.

All that tricked-up military gear, with that corny, faux-menacing, over-the-top Spaceballs stormtrooper look that police everywhere seem to favor more and more, it’s a symbol of the increasingly total lack of ideas behind all that force.

It was bad enough when we made police defend the use of torture and extrajudicial detention; now they’re being asked to defend mass theft, Lloyd Blankfein’s bailout-paid bonus, the principle of Angelo Mozilo not doing jail time.

How strong can anyone defending those causes be? These people are weak and pathetic, and they’re getting weaker. And boy, are they showing it. Way to gear up with combat helmets and the submachine guns, fellas, to take on a bunch of co-eds sitting Indian-style. Maybe after work you can go break up a game of Duck-Duck-Goose at the local Chuck E Cheese. I’d bring the APC for that one.

Bravo to those kids who hung in there and took it. And bravo for standing up and showing everyone what real strength is. There is no strength without principle. You have it. They lost it. It’s as simple as that.
Go read the whole post by Matt Taibbi.

And make sure you go read the Glenn Greenwald article at Salon that Matt Taibbi points at:
Despite all the rights of free speech and assembly flamboyantly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the reality is that punishing the exercise of those rights with police force and state violence has been the reflexive response in America for quite some time. As Franke-Ruta put it, “America has a very long history of protests that meet with excessive or violent response, most vividly recorded in the second half of the 20th century.” Digby yesterday recounted a similar though even worse incident aimed at environmental protesters.

The intent and effect of such abuse is that it renders those guaranteed freedoms meaningless. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed — or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet — many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power. That’s a natural response, and it’s exactly what the climate of fear imposed by all abusive police state actions is intended to achieve: to coerce citizens to “decide” on their own to be passive and compliant — to refrain from exercising their rights — out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.

The genius of this approach is how insidious its effects are: because the rights continue to be offered on paper, the citizenry continues to believe it is free. They believe that they are free to do everything they choose to do, because they have been “persuaded” — through fear and intimidation — to passively accept the status quo. As Rosa Luxemburg so perfectly put it: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Someone who sits at home and never protests or effectively challenges power factions will not realize that their rights of speech and assembly have been effectively eroded because they never seek to exercise those rights; it’s only when we see steadfast, courageous resistance from the likes of these UC-Davis students is this erosion of rights manifest.


Pervasive police abuses and intimidation tactics applied to peaceful protesters — pepper-spray, assault rifles, tasers, tear gas and the rest — not only harm their victims but also the relationship of the citizenry to the government and the set of core political rights. Implanting fear of authorities in the heart of the citizenry is a far more effective means of tyranny than overtly denying rights.
Here is a bit from a talk entitled "With Liberty and Justice for Some" given by Glenn Greenwald that focuses on the abuse of Bradley Manning:

Update 2011nov23: Here is a bit from an article by Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post:
Pepper spray, which in many countries is defined as a weapon and is often illegal for civilians to possess, can cause tissue damage, respiratory attacks and, in rare cases, death. It is considered far superior during crowd control to more violent forms of self-defense. But, like Tasers, which can also cause severe injury and death, there is increasing concern than it is being used by law enforcement without discretion or proper understanding of its dangers. The UC-Davis video will only amplify those concerns.

The police officer emerges from the margins of the scene, walks in front of a line of students on the ground with arms interlaced, and brandishes the can briefly in a gesture that feels both bored and theatrical, like someone on a low-budget television commercial displaying a miracle product or a magician holding the flowers he is about make disappear. He then proceeds to spray a thick stream of orange liquid into their faces. The crowd surrounding the students erupts in cries of “shame, shame,” questioning the police about whom they are protecting.

The spraying is slow and deliberate, one face after another, down the line. It is the multiple victims that makes it so chilling, recalling the mechanization of violence during the 20th century. Pepper spray, of course, isn’t meant to be lethal, and it was deployed during an effort to enforce university policy rather than a state-sanctioned campaign of violence. But the apparent absence of empathy from the police officer, applying a toxic chemical to humans as if they were garden pests, is shocking. Even more so because it is a university police officer.

University police generally operate under a more benignly paternalistic understanding of the law than other police. They are there to ensure the safety of the students, to help with the messier details of the in loco parentis function of the university.

A half-century ago, many parents told their children to ask a cop for help in case of trouble. With police forces now defining their role as more military than civilian, viewing citizens with suspicion and often treating them with hostility, that has changed. Saying the wrong thing to a cop, asking for a warrant before a search, throwing a snowball at an unmarked cop car, legally taking a picture of an official building, questioning a Capitol police officer about why a public area has been closed can lead to threats of arrest, or worse. But on university campuses, the police are often seen as they generally once were: your friend.

The UC-Davis police force has defended the use of pepper spray. An independent police expert quoted by the Associated Press calls pepper spray a “compliance technique,” in language eerily reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s euphemisms for torture.

Even if it is determined that the police followed proper procedures, the video might have lasting power for outrage, tapping into growing concerns not that police are abusing standard policies, but that our policies might need to be revised. Indeed, the disjunction between how the UC-Davis police read this video (they see an officer doing his job) and how many others read this video (they see a man in a uniform causing great and unnecessary pain to unresisting students) indicates that we have reached a kind of intellectual impasse about what kind of police we want and what limits should be placed on their power.


UC-Davis has announced an investigation into the officer’s action and whether it was merited and legal. It is a familiar pattern — the video is uploaded, it spreads, outrage develops and then the institution issues a seemingly reluctant and reactive plea for caution. We don’t know the context. We don’t know what really happened.

That kind of caution grew out of an age of skepticism in response to the manipulation of photographs by unscrupulous agents, including totalitarian governments. It was an appropriate skepticism, engendering a valuable resistance to the extraordinary power of images to seem transparently truthful.

The times may be changing. Video can be as easily manipulated as photography, but multiple videos from multiple perspectives, arriving within hours or minutes after an event, require a different kind of skepticism. The repeated claims by officials that our eyes are lying begin to seem more and more incredible.

Update 2011nov24: Here is a bit from a post by Judy Stone on the Scientific American blog:
There are reports of the efficacy of capsaicin in crowd control, but little regarding trials of exposures. Perhaps this is because pepper spray is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, as a pesticide and not by the FDA.

The concentration of capsaicin in bear spray is 1-2%; it is 10-30% in “personal defense sprays.”

While the police might feel reassured by the study, “The effect of oleoresin capsicum “pepper” spray inhalation on respiratory function,” I was not. This study met the “gold standard” of clinical trials, in that it was a “randomized, cross-over controlled trial to assess the effect of Oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray inhalation on respiratory function by itself and combined with restraint.” However, while the OC exposure showed no ill effect, only 34 volunteers were exposed to only 1 sec of Cap-Stun 5.5% OC spray by inhalation “from 5 ft away as they might in the field setting (as recommended by both manufacturer and local police policies).”

By contrast, an ACLU report, “Pepper Spray Update: More Fatalities, More Questions” found, in just two years, 26 deaths after OC spraying, noting that death was more likely if the victim was also restrained. This translated to 1 death per 600 times police used spray. (The cause of death was not firmly linked to the OC). According to the ACLU, “an internal memorandum produced by the largest supplier of pepper spray to the California police and civilian markets” concludes that there may be serious risks with more than a 1 sec spray. A subsequent Department of Justice study examined another 63 deaths after pepper spray during arrests; the spray was felt to be a “contributing factor” in several.

A review in 1996 by the Division of Epidemiology of the NC DHHS and OSHA concluded that exposure to OC spray during police training constituted an unacceptable health risk.

Update 2011nov25: Here is an interview with Nathan Brown, professor of English at UC Davis, who has written a letter calling for chancellor Katehi to resign. He appears at 2:45 into the video:

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