Too Much Violence and Pepper Spray at the OWS Protests: The
Videos and PicturesBy Garance Franke-Ruta
Nov 19 2011, 6:58 PM ET
The dousing of seated, non-violent students with a chemical agent at
U.C. Davis should provoke a call for restraint. These images show their
experience is not unique.
Police dressed in riot gear at U.C. Davis on Friday afternoon used pepper
spray to clear seated protesters from the university quad where they had
set up a small Occupy encampment, pro-actively and repeatedly dousing the
passively-resisting students with a chemical agent designed to cause pain
and suffering in order to make it easier to remove them.
It is hard to look at this kind of attack and think this is how we do
things in America.
And yet it is all too American. 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. It is a common fantasy
among people born in the years since the great protests movements -- and
even some not so great ones -- that they would have stood on the bold
side of history had they been alive at the time and been called to make a
choice. But the truth is that American protest movements in real time --
and especially in their early days -- often appear controversial,
politically difficult, out-of-the-mainstream, and dangerous. And they are
met with fear.
Even decades later, acts of protest can be the subject of heated debate
and lead people to question (as well as celebrate) the moral standing of
those who put their bodies on the line during moments of historic tumult
-- as Sen. John Kerry, Vietnam veteran and former anti-Vietnam protester,
learned during his presidential bid in 2004.
This sort of dynamic holds for pretty much any group that aims to upend
the existing social order using direct action, because few resort to such
tactics if they think they have other, easier ways to petition for
redress of grievances or could be heard as loudly through existing
channels of expression. The Tea Party movement, for example, has held
many protests but with few exceptions has stopped short of civil
disobedience, finding early on that its members were by and large not
willing to face arrest and that it could gain power relatively quickly
through the political system by backing challengers in Republican
primaries and allying with experienced party operatives. The Occupy
movement is both very new and rather diffuse so far, and appears less
interested in gaining power than making power uncomfortable and raising
far-reaching questions and public awareness.
Just over two months old, it has succeed in changing the terms of the
national debate about income inequality in this country with shocking
rapidity. And whether it flames out in a rash of alienating and chaotic
street clashes or builds into a goal-oriented and sustainable force in
American life -- sustainable as any protest movement, that is, which is
to say not very -- it's clear it has already made one of the most
significant interventions into the national debate on economic equality
Which brings us back to the video of what happened at U.C. Davis
yesterday: Non-violent students passively resisting both university and
police directives to clear the area were subjected to acts of brutality
that cannot be morally justified by any accounting of the facts on the
ground. The raw video of yesterday's pepper-spray incident has rightfully
gone viral since hitting the web last night. It is appalling:
Here's the same incident videotaped from a different perspective:
Junior faculty member Nathan Brown, an assistant professor of English at
Davis, says what actually happened
was even worse than what's shown on the videos, and has called on
U.C. Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi to resign -- a call that has since
become a petition. His description:
As Will Wilkinson
tweeted last night of the pepper-spray wielding officer identified as
Lt. John Pike, "It ought to be possible to sue the pants off this
guy and win."
- Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these
students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked,
police pepper-sprayed students. Students remained on the ground, now
writhing in pain, with their arms linked.
- What happened next?
- Police used batons to try to push the students apart. Those they
could separate, they arrested, kneeling on their bodies and pushing their
heads into the ground. Those they could not separate, they pepper-sprayed
directly in the face, holding these students as they did so. When
students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their
mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats. Several of these students
were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five
minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up
The U.C. Davis police department has, not surprisingly,
defended its actions. Ten students were arrested -- eight men and to
women -- and about a dozen others were sprayed, according to the Davis
* * *
The nearest I got to Zuccotti Park before it was cleared earlier this
week was passing it in a cab one night in New York; it appeared a small
and forlorn collection of tents in what was by late October a very cold
rain. Visiting McPherson Square in Washington, D.C., for the first time
with Atlantic contributor Tina Dupuy earlier this month, I met union
members and teenage college students trying to put their
action and create of a new public square in the form of Occupy DC. It
seemed kind of sweetly literal -- building tents as a physical attempt at
structural transformation of the public sphere? -- and largely
harmless to anyone but the protesters, because grungy and jerry-rigged
and relatively defenseless against the elements or potential criminals.
But since McPherson normally is a bit of a dead space in the city --
there are some residential buildings near it, but it's mainly surrounded
by office-workers who clear out on evenings and weekends -- it didn't
seem to be bothering anyone.
Perhaps Washington's still-intact Occupy encampment has been treated more
gently than those in other cities because protests in the nation's
capital are as routine and unremarkable as are the city's frequent rains.
Between the easy co-existence with protests here, and the fact that the
Occupy encampments and demonstrations across the country have been
covered as much as regional stories as a national one, it's easy to have
missed the truly shocking number of violent confrontations that have
taken place as the anti-Wall Street movement has extended its reach.
Last night's video should serve as a wake-up call. Below are some of the
other dramatic moments in the ongoing confrontations between Occupy
protesters and police. Taken together, they paint a disturbing portrait
that should at a bare minimum call into question the standards and
practices police officers around the nation have developed for deploying
pepper spray, which has only become a universal policing tool within the
past 20 years. And they raise real questions about whether
disproportionate police responses to the movement's intentional acts of
civil disobedience have in some cases increased social disorder rather
than restored calm.
tear gas (Scott Olsen video):