Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pepper Spray's Fallout, From Crowd Control to Mocking Images

Pepper Spray’s Fallout, From Crowd Control to Mocking Images

Joshua Trujillo/, via Associated Press

Dorli Rainey, 84, was hit with pepper spray during an Occupy Seattle protest.

Published: November 22, 2011

Some women carry it in their purses in a pink, lipstick-shaped container. Hikers use it to deter bears. People in most states can buy a small canister of it on a quick-release key ring on for $7.07.

Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

At the University of California, demonstrators gathered to protest police officers' use of the spray on docile protesters.

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The image of Lt. John Pike of the campus police has been inserted into familiar paintings and images.

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Wayne Tilcock/The Enterprise, via Associated Press

David Buscho was helped after being struck by pepper spray at the University of California, Davis.

As pepper spray has become ubiquitous in this country over the last two decades, it has not raised many eyebrows. But now, after images of the campus police at the University of California, Davis, spraying the Kool-Aid-colored orange compound on docile protesters on Friday, pepper spray is a topic of national debate.

It has become the crowd-control measure of choice lately by police departments from New York to Denver to Portland, Ore., as they counter protests by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

To some, pepper spray is a mild, temporary irritant and its use has been justified as cities and universities have sought to regain control of their streets, parks and campuses. After the video at Davis went viral, Megyn Kelly on Fox News dismissed pepper spray as “a food product, essentially.”

To the American Civil Liberties Union, its use as a crowd-control device, particularly when those crowds are nonthreatening, is an excessive and unconstitutional use of force and violates the right to peaceably assemble.

Some of the Davis students are threatening civil suits against the university on these grounds. The chancellor has called the use of pepper spray “unacceptable” and has put the officers on administrative leave.

“The courts have made it very clear that these type of devices can’t be used indiscriminately and should be used only when the target poses a physical threat to someone,” said Michael Risher, staff attorney for the A.C.L.U. of Northern California.

To Kamran Loghman, who helped develop pepper spray into a weapons-grade material with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1980s, the incident at Davis violated his original intent.

“I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents,” Mr. Loghman said in an interview.

Mr. Loghman, who also helped develop guidelines for police departments using the spray, said that use-of-force manuals generally advise that pepper spray is appropriate only if a person is physically threatening a police officer or another person.

In New York, for example, a police commander who sprayed several women in an Occupy demonstration last month faced disciplinary proceedings. The New York Police Department says pepper spray should be used chiefly for self-defense or to control suspects who are resisting arrest.

To many watching from the sidelines, pepper spray remains an obscure agent, even as the video of its spraying at Davis has become the defining image of an otherwise amorphous Occupy movement.

Pepper spray — its formal name is oleoresin capsicum, or O.C. spray — finds its power in an inflammatory agent that occurs naturally in more than 300 varieties of peppers, including cayenne, and that vary by their degree of hotness. (Black pepper is not part of the capsicum family.) When sprayed in someone’s face, it causes an intense burning sensation of the eyes, resulting in temporary blindness, and restricts breathing, induces coughing and leaves the person at least temporarily incapacitated.

Pepper’s use as a deterrent dates to the ancient cultures in China and India, which sometimes used it in war, sometimes for torture. Because it was effective, cheap and widely cultivated, pepper persisted as a weapon through the ages, mostly for self-defense. Some Japanese women kept it tucked into their kimonos in case a man made aggressive advances.

It is now used the world over in its spray form, under numerous brand names, mostly to foil criminal suspects but also for self-protection against both humans and animals.

But the public rarely witnesses such scenes, and that was one of the reasons that the video from Davis was so powerful. It captured many elements — seated protesters being doused with a bright orange spray by campus officers, whose body language appeared surprisingly casual.

“What makes this so oddly interesting is that those officers don’t look like the Chicago police in 1968,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. They are so casual, he said, “it’s as if they were called because someone was sunbathing naked on the quad.”

All of these elements, Mr. Thompson said, added up to a riveting image. “All of these contradictions are jammed into that little video, where we have this casual disenfranchising of rights, but it is a new era, where pepper spray is used as opposed to batons and guns.”

That nonaggressive posture by the police, he said, has fueled some of the widespread online reaction to the video, in which thousands of Internet users recast an image of one of the officers, inserting it digitally into famous paintings. Suddenly, on Web pages, blogs and Twitter messages, the officer, identified as Lt. John Pike, appeared to be standing in the field in Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” spraying Christina as she sprawled on the grass. He cropped up, too, in the harsh angles of Picasso’s “Guernica,” and in scenes from movies. There he was zapping Julie Andrews on a mountaintop in “The Sound of Music.”

It also prompted several satiric reviews on Amazon of pepper-spray products.

“It really is the Cadillac of citizen repression technology,” one reviewer wrote. “This is space age domination technology,” wrote another. “Works on citizens. AND ALIENS!!”

But inevitably, the image of Lieutenant Pike was inserted into more sobering images from real life, like the famous photograph of the Vietnamese girl running naked down the road after planes dropped napalm on her village. He also stood in the 1970 picture of a woman at Kent State, her arms raised in horror over the body of a student shot to death by National Guardsmen.

Those jarring images, Mr. Thompson said, were a reminder that “this is a new generation of subduing people, and while the decision to use it may not be right,” he added, “we are in the age of pepper spray, not the age of real bullets.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 23, 2011

An earlier version of this article misstated the year of a photograph taken at Kent State. It was taken in 1970, not 1968.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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