A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But a thousand words would be woefully insufficient to contain the outrage against the campus cops depicted here in the now infamous UC Davis pepper spraying incident.
Last Friday afternoon UC Davis students staged a protest an Occupy Wall Street protest, specifically targeting the sharp increase in tuition. During their sit-in police in riot gear responded to their protests. In response, the students linked arms and refused to move. One of the officers in the viral Youtube video (585,727 views and growing) produced a riot-sized canister of pepper spray and went down the line of protesters, giving each a blast in turn.
From a public relations standpoint this incident was an absolute train wreck. With earnest students in full kumbaya mode on one side, and a nonchalant cop wielding a pepper spray canister like a drunken cook hosing down a flaming BBQ this incident was destined to become an Internet sensation.
Obviously, much of the blame can and will fall on the unprofessional demeanor of the police officers while administering a painful but necessary use of force. And yes, you heard right. Necessary use of force.
The news media was quick to portray this student protest as a peaceful group: no rock-throwing, pushing or shoving. But here is where the story line fails.
At some point a decision was made to break up the protests and move people along. This decision, which set in motion the unfortunate events, was the tipping point in what could otherwise have been a simple and legitimate protest worthy of a short byline in the local news. Whoever made this decision must answer for the outcome. But let’s skip ahead to the police on scene.
Clearing protesters is a process that begins with verbal commands. It appeared police gave the warning to leave; it also was apparent that the protesters ignored this warning. Instead, they linked arms to further hinder the police.
In case you just missed it, these two related reactions changed the entire situation.
Once cops were given orders to clear the walkway they would then have authority to enforce criminal statutes (such as Trespassing, Disorderly Conduct, Failure to Obey a Police Officer, and Obstruction of Justice) on any protester who failed to follow directives. By linking their arms to hinder the lawful arrest, the protesters quickly bypassed compliant (following verbal commands) and passive resistance (the “wet noodle” response), and became actively resistant to arrest.
Thus linked together, the protesters gave the cops little choice. If it had been one or two individuals, a simple arm bar would have sufficed to get the subject safely into custody. But when the number of offenders rose well beyond the number of officers, grabbing people individually would have been an unsafe, exhausting and foolish choice.
Pepper spray is an effective tool. Despite the painful stinging to the mucus lining of the nose and throat (an awful sensation I have experienced on several occasions), it is on the lower end of the force options available to police officers. Why is this, given the burning, nauseous reaction to the capsicum pepper? The reason is simple: it’s not about avoiding pain, it’s about avoiding injury.
Pepper spray rarely injures people, a fact that cannot be said of many other force options. Forceful takedowns, trips, and night stick applications each have an increasing risk of injury to the subject. In short, using pepper spray on an actively resisting subject(s) is a tactical police response well within the guidelines of any police agency.
But in the UC Davis incident two additional factors were missing. The first is the unaccountable reason for ordering the dispersal of student protesters during daylight hours. Few bastions of society regard free thought and speech as highly as our college campuses, and the tone and nature of this protest (at least in hindsight) did not appear to require immediate removal. Whoever made that decision, whether the police chief or a university official, needs to give a full accounting for it.
The second is the failure of the campus police to demonstrate their desire to peaceably mitigate the occupation. Their seeming cavalier attitude played right into the hands (and video lens) of anyone with an ax to grind against “storm trooper cops.” Whether or not their actions were justifiable, the manner in which they carried out their duties made it apparent that they considered the students beneath their contempt.
Exercising the indelibly American rite known as civil disobedience can be a chaotic and messy. This latest exercise at UC Davis, however, was just ugly. In the end, the cops, the university officials and the protesters should all share the blame.
Everyone blew it.