It looks as though he’s spraying weeds in the garden or coating the oven with caustic cleanser. It’s not just the casual, dispassionate manner in which the University of California at Davis police officer pepper-sprays a line of passive students sitting on the ground. It’s the way the can becomes merely a tool, an implement that diminishes the humanity of the students and widens a terrifying gulf between the police and the people whom they are entrusted to protect.
The video, which shows the officer using the spray against Occupy protesters Friday, went viral over the weekend. On Sunday, the university placed two police officers on administrative leave while a task force investigates. The clip probably will be the defining imagery of the Occupy movement, rivaling in symbolic power, if not in actual violence, images from the Kent State shootings more than 40 years ago.
Although another controversial image, showing an elderly woman hit with pepper spray near an Occupy protest in Seattle, made this nonlethal form of crowd control an iconic part of the new protest movement, the UC-Davis video goes even further in crystallizing an important question: What does the social contract say about nonviolent protest, and what is the role of police in a democratic society?
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.
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