The chilling scenes of this weekend's pepper spray incident at the University of California at Davis have already been transformed into an official Internet meme: The Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop. The scene is chilling because the cop, as he’s pepper spraying students, "looks as though he's spraying weeds in the garden or coating the oven with caustic cleanser."
The younger generation was raised on the idea of nonviolent demonstration as the best way to effect societal change, but will the pepper spray incident encourage some members of the Occupy Wall Street movement to transition from nonviolent demonstration to nonviolent retaliation?
This may seem like an oxymoron, but bear with me. If anything, the Internet attacks of hacktivist organizations this year have shown that nonviolent retaliation gets a more immediate response than nonviolent demonstration. Freezing bank accounts, flooding Web sites with denial-of-service attacks, releasing sensitive records to the public, publicizing home address es of officials, and wreaking havoc with popular social media accounts are all nonviolent steps that appear to strike more fear into the hearts of government officials than hundreds of young college kids lined up on a sidewalk. These nonviolent actions are the online equivalent of casually dispensing pepper spray into the eyes of the 1 percent.
It was perhaps inevitable that, at some point, something like “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop” would occur, as local police responses to protests across the country have escalated. From the police raid on the Brooklyn Bridge to the night of violence in Oakland to the midnight bulldozing of Zuccotti Park, each new Occupy Wall Street action seemed to be accompanied by an ever-stronger crowd control response. In New York, the NYPD was already showing off the Long-Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) — originally developed as a military technology for Western Iraq — as a way to clear out Zuccotti Park, although law enforcement insisted they were using the device safely and as a means to broadcast public announcements. In Oakland, the riot police already had flash grenades.
And plenty of technology vendors offer the latest in high-tech crowd control tools — from the "tactical maloderant balls" (essentially giant stink bombs) to the futuristic-sounding "active denial technology" that emits microwaves in tight beams, burning the skin of protesters to a point where they are forced to capitulate. As The Economist notes, innovations from the Department of Defense's Non-Lethal Weapons Program usually originated in dangerous places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where there is (understandably) an active market for the latest in crowd-control technology.
In response to this willingness by local governments to raise the crowd control stakes, the Occupy Wall Street crowd may be preparing a new wave of nonviolent retaliations. Already deprived of a physical space to make their demands known, and now deprived of the ability to make their demands known in a nonviolent way, it’s perhaps not surprising that they would turn to the Internet as their new home. Tools already exist for online retaliation. The hacktivist group Anonymous has asked supporters to flood the Pepper Spray Cop with e-mails, junk mail, and phone calls that condemn his actions.
As a civil society, however, we must ask ourselves: Where will we draw the line when it comes to the way we protect not only our civilians, but also our government leaders? What’s the difference between the government conducting surveillance of civilian communications, and these same civilians hacking into the records of, say, the local police department? Pepper spray may be preferable to rubber bullets and water cannons, just as inundating government officials with junk mail is preferable to conducting targeted attacks online against the government. Yet there is something very unsettling about a situation where the stakes appear to be rising — both online and off — every day.
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