The casual manner in which the University of California campus police sprayed those protesters reminds me of myself watering the shrubs around my house. It definitely wasn't an instance of self-defense, and it might just have political consequences that won't go away with a little water and a few minutes in the open air.
The New York Times has an article today about the fallout that could result from police forces using pepper spray as a compliance tool rather than as a less-than-lethal option for self-defense.
As pepper spray has become ubiquitous in this country over the last two decades, it has not raised many eyebrows. But now, after images of the campus police at the University of California, Davis, spraying the Kool-Aid-colored orange compound on docile protesters on Friday, pepper spray is a topic of national debate.
It has become the crowd-control measure of choice lately by police departments from New York to Denver to Portland, Ore., as they counter protests by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
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To Kamran Loghman, who helped develop pepper spray into a weapons-grade material with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1980s, the incident at Davis violated his original intent.
“I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents,” Mr. Loghman said in an interview.
Mr. Loghman, who also helped develop guidelines for police departments using the spray, said that use-of-force manuals generally advise that pepper spray is appropriate only if a person is physically threatening a police officer or another person.
The last time we had prolonged civil disturbances in the U.S., in the late 60s and early 70s, police didn't have any riot control chemical agents that were as selective as pepper spray. Back then it was tear gas grenades, and they could indiscriminately effect an acre or so of demonstrators and bystanders. I don't recall any great controversy about them, but maybe that was because they were pretty much the only alternative to wedge formations of police swinging long wooden riot batons.
Such wonderful memories! When we trained at doing the 'stomp and drag' in Military Police School, our instructors told us to swing our batons for the feet because hippies wear sandals. I see that the feet are still the preferred target area, according to page 68 of this Field Manual, and that hitting the head with a riot baton - AKA a 'wood shampoo' - is still strictly prohibited, so apparently some things never change.
Being doused with pepper spray sounds to me like a good alternative to getting your toes smashed. However, I don't think today's elected officials, or juries, will take such a pragmatic attitude.
The NYT quoted Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University who is studying the social impact of pepper spray incidents such as that at UC Davis:
Those jarring images ... were a reminder that “this is a new generation of subduing people, and while the decision to use it may not be right,” he added, “we are in the age of pepper spray, not the age of real bullets.”
Maybe someday somebody will invent a Nerf ball tool for dispersing rioters and non-violent demonstrators, but until then, it will hurt when you get hit.