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.