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UC Davis police break law with pepper spray


There is a chilling moment captured on film from the Nov. 18 protest at University of California, Davis that repeats in my mind. As students sit on the ground in silence, arms linked, a police officer raises a can of pepper spray to the crowd — as one might spray Raid onto unwanted bugs. The students keep their arms locked, enduring the pain as other officers move in to remove them from the ground.

But that’s not the moment that sticks with me. No, that moment comes when an officer roughs up a pained protester and asks: “Why do you fight?” Shortly thereafter, the remaining protesters encircle the police, slowly walking them back while chanting, “You can go,” as they open into a semicircle and watch the police leave.

Major protest movements have all had their clashes with the police or their administrators. The civil rights movement had Eugene “Bull” Connor with fire hoses and attack dogs. The “Chicago 8” at the 1968 Democratic National Convention made their voices heard — or they were gagged in court trying — and those killed at Kent State in 1970 are still alive in the nation’s memory. Fast-forward to 2011, where police wound Marine veterans, manhandle professors and poet laureates in California as well as journalists and retired judges in New York, and bludgeon and pepper-spray students.

But while there are still some today who defend the use of pepper spray on nonviolent protesters, what occurred at UC Davis couldn’t be further from legal. According to a January 2002 ruling in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Headwaters Forest Defense v. County of Humboldt found that “officers’ use of pepper spray on activists’ eyes and faces during peaceful … protests” that consisted of them locking arms via machine “constituted an excessive use of force.” The Court noted that before 2002, pepper spray use was “limited to controlling hostile or violent subjects” and had never been seen in use against nonviolent protesters.

The court also found that “the Fourth Amendment permits law enforcement officers to use only such force to effect an arrest as is objectively reasonable under the circumstances” and that “the pepper spray was unnecessary to subdue, remove or arrest the protesters.” Police would argue they faced “active resistance” and would therefore defend the action. However, the court noted the phrase is defined “as occurring when the subject is attempting to interfere with the officer’s actions by inflicting pain or physical injury to the officer without the use of a weapon or object.” They found that characterizing the arm-linking act as “active resistance” flies “contrary to the facts of the case.”

Former President John F. Kennedy said in 1962, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” This quote, coupled with philosopher George Santayana’s even more famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has me concerned about the future safety of protesters and police alike. I don’t believe any sane person wishes for a violent revolution in this country where democracy shined for generations. But I see these events and worry. What will happen, for example, if a protester gets violent and assaults the police, or if an officer decides, rightly or wrongly, that he must fire his weapon — and another Kent State occurs? That question shouted by the officer at UC Davis still rings in my ears.

I hope the protesters remain as peaceful and passive as they can and that scenes like the one at UC Davis will cease, as our lawmakers in Congress see their pain and work towards trying to fix our economic and social woes. Until that time, at least we can count on Congress for some decisions. They voted last week to declare tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable.

Ehud Cohen is a School of Engineering senior majoring in electrical and computer engineering.

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