The why’s of police brutality

pepper-spray cop by Louise Macabitas

[ Photo: The now-infamous original "pepper spray cop" shot by Louise Macabitas ]

There are lots of Youtube videos of the the UC Davis pepper-spraying but this one will give a gist of the event. A moustachioed cop sprays the orange substance on crouching students as though he were watering his lawn. Another shoots at the kids from behind, and then more step forward, to finish off the job. Towards the end of the short recording, a cop stares right at the camera, the reflected light on this visor making his face invisible. He clasps his baton threateningly, looking about as friendly as an enraged Darth Vadar (the image is from the poet Robert Haas, more on whom below).

According to one of those present, some police officers held the students’ mouths open to ensure the spray went into their throats. Several were hospitalized, and 45 minutes later one of them was still coughing blood.

Police brutality is nothing new; but an inadvertent result of the Occupy movement has been to shine a spotlight on it. Cops are clearly comfortable with demonstrating the extent of their capacity for aggression and violence. Instructions come from the top. At the OWS eviction from Zuccotti Park earlier this month, Commissioner Raymond Kelly could be seen “watching the proceedings from the edge of the park like a solitary commander.”

The facts are hard to believe. At Occupy Berkeley, a week before the UC debacle, deputy sheriffs came to break up the event. Robert Haas, a professor of poetry and poetics, and former US poet laureate, emerged from the day with painful bruises, while his colleague the poet Geoffrey O’Brien ended up with a broken rib. Cops dragged a female professor (a Wordsworth scholar) by her hair across a grass lawn.

In a New York Times article, Haas described the tactics employed against students: “They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.”

Such battering is not in any way unique. In New York during the midnight eviction of the camp from Zuccotti Park, a city council member, Ydanis Rodriguez, was arrested — police forced him to the pavement, scraping his face — and then held for 12 hours without a lawyer. The NYPD prevented journalists from covering what was happening. New York magazine reports that an officer threw one woman with press credentials to the ground, causing her head to hit the pavement. This was NYPD spokesman, Paul Browne’s response: “We’ve worked together in the past to iron out misunderstandings, and I’m happy to do so again.”

It is too simple to say that cops are the bad guys. Police forces are not especially well paid, and the “Occupants” have usually acknowledged this. When Occupy Wall Street marched across the Brooklyn Bridge last week they chanted, “Police, you are the 99%” or more charmingly, “You’re fine, you’re cute, take off your riot suit.” A comment on an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education sheds some light on their predicament: “Police are often understaffed, overworked, underpaid, and under-trained – it’s a recipe for disaster if protests spread to such places.  Riot control is a specialized skill – it is not something that most police officers do for a living.”

But in New York, the cops did have training in crowd control. Although they are outnumbered (as one friend, who dislikes the Occupy movement, has pointed out to me), they carry batons, guns and pepper spray, and are protected by helmets and visors. It’s hard to see how their position is weak, even within a big crowd.

On the contrary, what is striking from the UC Davis footage is the power that they seem to feel. Their relaxed manner suggests a sense of control, coupled with an absence of fear about the consequences. And bad publicity aside, there have been few: two of the officers who were involved have been placed indefinitely on paid administrative leave. The repercussions may be greater for UC Davis Chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi. As I write, 97,315 have signed a petition asking for the chancellor to resign.

Lots of questions need to be answered about police behavior over the past few weeks. How — and why — did this sense of impunity develop? Why the disregard for journalists, and what exactly does that mean for our society?

And what would have happened if they had remained calm and respectful? My guess is, probably nothing.


  1. Andrew Solomon says:

    Frieda, this is a great piece. One thought: you ask how the sense of impunity “develop[ed].” But maybe it has always been there, and it is just that more privileged communities (white, affluent) don’t often see it?

  2. Kenan says:

    Thanks for raising these important questions, Frieda.

    On the matter of “how did we get here,” I find myself inclined to agree with Mr. Greenwald that “the authoritarian mentality that has been nourished in the name of Terrorism” is to blame:

    It’s a very small step to go from supporting the abuse of defenseless detainees (including one’s fellow citizens) to supporting the pepper-spraying and tasering of non-violent political protesters.

    Matt Taibbi sums the point the point up nicely:

    What happened at UC Davis was the inevitable result of our failure to make sure our government stayed in the business of defending our principles… And we are stuck now with this fundamental conflict, whereby most of us are insisting that the law should apply equally to everyone, while the people running this country for years now have been operating according to the completely opposite principle that different people have different rights, and who deserves what protections is a completely subjective matter, determined by those in power, on a case-by-case basis.

  3. Alan says:


    Unlike mainstream accounts, yours includes detailed and more complete descriptions of the actual police behavior that is violent, brutal, and shockingly aggressive. Though painful to read and see, thanks for informing us much more fully.

    • Frieda Klotz says:

      Alan, yes: until I began to research this my impression of what happened was fairly vague … The more descriptions you read of the violence, the more shocking it emerges to be. It’s really strange to me that police would hurt people who are fairly elderly and simply must look non-threatening, like the poet Haas, his wife, and other senior academics.

  4. Bob Lamm says:

    The authoritarian mentality of police existed LONG before anyone ever heard of Osama Bin Laden. Andrew Solomon is exactly right in noting the race and class aspects of this issue. Decade after decade, we can find instances where affluent White people in the U.S. are shocked when they or their children are (mis)treated by police in ways that are routine in African American and Latino communities.

    Those of you familiar with the great film CASABLANCA will well remember when Captain Renault (Claude Rains) says he is “shocked, shocked” (a hilarious, ridiculous lie) to find gambling going on in Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart’s) club. That’s just how “shocked, shocked” I am by incidents of police brutality and misconduct in 2011. This is a very old, horrible story that long predates current concerns about terrorism.

  5. Bob Lamm says:

    P.S. In 1968, I did an undergraduate thesis on “Racism in the British Police.” Diseases like racism and authoritarian attitudes and conduct are not confined to the police of the United States.

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