The pepper-spraying of America

In this Friday, Nov. 18, 2011, photo University of California, Davis Police Lt. John Pike uses pepper spray to move Occupy UC Davis protesters while blocking their exit from the school's quad Friday in Davis, Calif. Two University of California, Davis police officers involved in pepper spraying seated protesters were placed on administrative leave Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011, as the chancellor of the school accelerates the investigation into the incident. (AP Photo/The Enterprise, Wayne Tilcock)

In the decade since the 9/11 attacks, American taxpayers have spent millions of dollars in the name of homeland security turning municipal police departments into miniature armies, wielding everything from M-16s to tanks. The New York Police Department even claims it can shoot down a jetliner — anything to protect U.S. civilians.

Friday night on a college campus in Davis, Calif., the unfathomable happened — a group of students came under attack from a chemical agent. Two of them were hospitalized.

But those behind the incident had nothing to do with international terrorism. They were officers of the University of California-Davis campus police force, dressed in full riot gear, unleashing a barrage of pepper spray at point blank range against roughly 10 students who had locked arms on a sidewalk in an act of civil disobedience.

The shocking episode, which took place after the cops had ripped down tents belonging to students supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, was captured on videos that quickly went viral, and sparked outrage from coast to coast.

“This is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population,” wrote the Atlantic’s James Fallows, a former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. He wondered how Americans would react if similar images were broadcast out of Syria or China, and he compared photos of the event to those of civil rights protesters fire-hosed by Birmingham’s Sheriff Bull Connor in 1963.

“It doesn’t look good,” said David Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who now teaches criminal justice, specializing in the use of force, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Klinger stressed that he wasn’t familiar with the protocols of the campus cops — but he wondered why they didn’t try hauling them away first.

The uproar at the campus just outside Sacramento — the two cops who fired the pepper spray are now on “administrative leave” (sound familiar, Penn Staters?) and there are widespread calls for university chancellor Linda Katehi to resign — is arguably the worst episode of what could charitably be “overpolicing” since the Occupy movement started, but it’s not an isolated incident.

In recent days, we’ve seen police fracture the skull of an Iraq War veteran in Oakland with a tear gas canister, campus police at Berkeley striking peaceful protesters with batons, and officers in New York City arresting credentialed journaliststrying to cover the raid of Zuccotti Park.

One place that’s so far been spared any controversy about police tactics has been Philadelphia, where some 62 Occupy protesters have been arrested so far in acts of civil disobedience. In each case, protesters who locked arms and refused to move — exactly as happened in Davis — were simply pulled away and booked without injury or incident.

Still, could it happen here?

Philadelphia police wouldn’t comment last night, referring questions to the mayor’s office. It’s unclear how cops might deal with eventual resisters at the Dilworth Plaza camp, where eviction notices have been posted ahead of a $50 million construction project.

This much is clear: The campus cops 3,000 miles away have offer a blueprint of what not to do.
The swelling tide of police violence against peaceful demonstrators comes after 10 years of citizens’ passive acquiescence toward the Patriot Act and expanded government snooping, waterboarding terror suspects, and giving urban police departments more high-tech firepower than many Third World nations. Now our security-state-on-steroids is being turned against non-violent protesters here in the “homeland.” Talk about blowback!

On Saturday night, UC-Davis’ under-seige chief Katehi left an urgent meeting about the crisis; hundreds of students cleared a path and glared at the chancellor’s long “walk of shame” in stark chilling silence, with no sound except the stark clicking of her heels on the pavement. Two powerful questions screamed from the silence.


And why does Linda Katehi still have a job?