Pepper spray can’t be washed off with water. The intense burning it causes — the stinging, the redness, the swelling, the coughing and gagging and gasping — will only subside with time, usually several hours. It can cause tissue damage and respiratory attacks. A study of its most commonly prescribed remedies found that none of them really work. It has been prohibited in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention, so our enemies don’t have to experience it on the battlefield. If only our citizens were so lucky.
Over the past several weeks police have been using pepper spray with alarming frequency in the United States against peaceful protesters. The injured include an 84-year-old woman, a pregnant woman, a priest and an Iraq war veteran. Over the weekend, we had to add to that list a group of college students, gathered nonviolently on the campus of the University of California at Davis.
For refusing to leave an occupy encampment they had set up on campus, more than a dozen students received a point-blank hosing of military-grade pepper spray by a campus police officer dressed, inexplicably, in riot gear. Then they received another one. And another. According to reports, some were punished for trying to protect their faces by having pepper spray forced down their throats. One student was reported to have been coughing up blood 45 minutes after the occurrence. Several were taken to the hospital. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the chancellor of the universitydefended the actions of the police. She should resign immediately.
James Fallows wrote of this act of police brutality, “Think how we’d react if we saw it coming from some riot-control unit in China, or in Syria.” We know how we’d react — how we have before: with a combination of disgust and outrage on behalf of those who are viciously victimized abroad, and with a deep sense of relief knowing that the United States is not the kind of place where such things unfold. In that sense, the cause of the brutality is the same as that which has driven so many thousands to occupy parks and squares and campuses: a political system that has abandoned its commitment to the ideals it is meant to uphold.
It is ironic, as former Seattle Police commissioner Norm Stamper said in the Nation, that “those police officers who are busting up the Occupy protesters are themselves victims of the same social ills the demonstrators are combating . . . and in fact, with cities and states struggling to balance the budget while continuing to deliver public safety, many cops are finding themselves out of work.”
The deployment of police forces against Occupy protesters is also an illustration of just how backward this nation’s priorities have become. “This is a profound statement about who law enforcement works for in this country,” wrote Matt Taibbi after New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered the eviction of protesters in Zuccotti Park. “There have already been hundreds of arrests, which is hundreds more than we ever saw during the years when Wall Street bankers were stealing billions of dollars.”
At UC Davis, in particular, students had spent a week protesting a possible 81 percent tuition increase, from $12,192 per year to $22,200. (Tuition in the UC system, the largest public university system in the country, is already three times what it was a decade ago. “One of the reasons I am involved with OWS and advocating for an occupy movement on the UC campus is to fight privatization and austerity in the UC system, and fight rising tuition costs,” said one victim of the pepper spraying who was interviewed anonymously the following day (and who still had a burning sensation in his throat, lips and nose). “I think that citizens have the right to get an education regardless of economic condition.”
Those tuition rate hikes were the result of a massive budget shortfall in California which, in turn, was the result of the housing collapse and recession, which, in turn, was caused by the same bankers and politicians thousands are protesting against in New York and Washington, D.C., and throughout the rest of the country.
And so the protests should continue in the face of the forces that will continue to mobilize against them, whether in the form of police in riot gear or lobbyist-sponsored smear campaigns. That means not just occupying parks and squares; it means occupying Congress, so that it might create jobs again. It means occupying state houses, so that we see more wins like we did in Ohio on behalf of workers’ rights. It means occupying the White House, so that we can replicate the Keystone XL pipeline victory again and again. And it means that the rest of the 99 percenters — not just those who are physically occupying, but the rest of us — should join in wherever we can, however we can.
If the movement can occupy the national debate for long enough, it can change it. And if it channels its passion, anger and hopes into workable strategies, it might actually forge a new politics. That chapter is being written right now by Americans all over this country, including and especially that small group of college students in California who stood up for what they believed in, and then refused to stand down.