The week of November 18 had been good. I’d made good progress on several projects and I’d done some enjoyable and productive research for a freelance photo story on Occupy DC. I spent several hours between Freedom Plaza and McPherson Park talking with some of the Occupiers and delving into their backgrounds. Most of the people I talked to were my age or close to it and low key in terms of their energy available for social protest. That Saturday, a few of them told me that a group had gone somewhere to protest but that there were too many “crazies” involved in that one, so they stayed home-in the park. Turns out thirteen of the “crazies” were arrested occupying the old Franklin School.
Pretty bland stuff for what some Washington Post writers are calling a “revolution.”
Sometime over that weekend, I became aware of an incident involving UC Davis police and misbehaving students-Occupy UC Davis-but there was nothing about it to grab my attention. Moreover, UC Davis has a reputation for tumultuous protests going back to its earliest days, so campus unrest at Davis is just another business day.
There is a video screen in the lobby of the building where I work that blathers “news” from the cable news channels 24 hours a day. I became cognizant that something more may have happened when I saw the oxymoron “Police pepper spray Innocent Students” streaming across it against a backdrop of a blue suited street cop-tie, long sleeve shirt, but wearing a helmet-, described by the Reporter as wearing “riot gear,” bend over and say something to a young man sitting in a group of young people on the sidewalk. The young man looked up, shook his head “no” and laughed. The officer walked back to the group of police officers standing calmly amidst a crowd of young people and the image on the screen became some guy with a shaved and polished head saying the police had “no reason” to do what they did.
Right away I knew that the free and independent press so vital to the functioning of our American society was hot on the trail increased revenue streams.
My research for this was done almost entirely on the internet. The first news report I found was on Good Morning America and is typical of the journalistic failings involved in this. The anchor leads off with “…that campus cop caught on tape pepper spraying Occupy demonstrators.” Whether he intended it or not, “Caught on tape,” suggests that the cop was doing something wrong and, well, got “caught.”
The first commentator hands off to second commentator who continues that the officer “wielding a can of pepper spray orders the demonstrators to disperse and then he casually sprays the chemical irritant in their face from close range.” Well at least he wasn’t wielding a gun. To his credit, he also reported, “after disobeying police orders” the protestors linked arms. The video showed a police officer “brandishing” the pepper spray canister to the protestors and then reporter says the police officer “orders the protestors to disperse” before spraying them. He also reported that other law enforcement agencies across the U.S. had used “tear gas and pepper spray” to disperse Occupy demonstrators.
While I was duly impressed by the reporter’s endeavor to be “fair and balanced” (My apologies to Fox but their slogan seems to have become an industry standard), the report created more questions than it asked. For example, the calm demeanor of the officers, the fact that they look like they have formed a loose version of a “Roman Square” (a defensive position) and that the students are excited and obviously worked up about something is at odds with the tenor of the report.
What was happening? Why are these people so upset? Why are these officers so calm looking? Why are the officers grouped like Centurions in a Roman Square?
Fact is, “fair and balanced” doesn’t necessarily mean “complete and accurate.”
The Washington Post mentioned the incident twice over the weekend. One report was a couple column inches about a demonstration at UC Davis. The purpose of including that report may have been more to fill in otherwise empty space on the newspaper page than actually report the incident.
The second article was longer and included in the Lifestyles section with the gossip columnists and latest fashions. In this one, titled “UC Davis pepper-spraying raises questions about role of police” is powerfully written and the author, Phillip Kennicott, may have missed his calling as a rousing speechwriter.
He opens with, “It looks as though he’s spraying weeds in the garden or coating the oven with caustic cleanser. It’s not just the casual, dispassionate manner in which the University of California at Davis police officer pepper-sprays a line of passive students sitting on the ground. It’s the way the can becomes merely a tool, an implement that diminishes the humanity of the students and widens a terrifying gulf between the police and the people whom they are entrusted to protect.”
Kennicott also complains that times have changed: “A half-century ago, many parents told their children to ask a cop for help in case of trouble. With police forces now (treating citizens with hostility) that has changed. Saying the wrong thing to a cop, asking for a warrant before a search, throwing a snowball at an unmarked cop car, legally taking a picture of an official building, questioning a Capitol police officer about why a public area has been closed can lead to threats of arrest, or worse.” He even went so far as to categorize the police department’s description of pepper spray as “language eerily reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s euphemisms for torture.” Obviously, according to Kennicott, Americans just don’t trust police, anymore.
As a last note on Kennicott’s article, I wonder if he actually thought about what he was saying when he wrote, “The (video) clip probably will be the defining imagery of the Occupy movement, rivaling in symbolic power, if not in actual violence, images from the Kent State shootings more than 40 years ago.” Did he really intend to compare water soluble pepper spray that was washed off shortly after the incident to the shooting deaths of students at Kent State? I hope not.
One SF Chronicle article questioned “Was Calif. police use of pepper spray justified?” and elevated the police actions to a nationwide concern of the proper role of police in society as well raising concerns over the proper use of pepper spray. Curiously, the San Francisco Chronicle article included an interview with retired Baltimore Police Lieutenant Charles J. Key. Key was the author of the Baltimore P.D. standard operating procedure on the use of pepper spray. He offered his opinion that based on his experience and understanding of the facts involved, the use of pepper spray at U.C. Davis was justified. This may have been the most objective article I read.
Which brings us full circle to the Good Morning America story.
The Good Morning America story included comments by Okorie Okorocha AKA Charlie Sinatra or “Dr DUI,” a Southern California DUI attorney who specializes in DUI defense. He has an interesting web page titled “How to Beat a California DUI Charge.” If you like to drink and drive in California, you might find it helpful. Okorocha has pasted a copy of the ABC interview into the profile photo on Facebook. He also offers comfort to those who lose their DUI cases. On part of his website, he has a polemic explaining how ALL of the breathalyzers are inaccurate and reading high. He doesn’t appear to explain why no one has fixed the problem, but would presume a problem really exists.
For the ABC interview, he appears to have been interviewed in front of a standard false front where a bookcase full of law books has been photographed and it is supposed to look like he is in a law library. The problem with that technique for faking a law office is that the shadows on his face conflict with the shadows on the “books.” In the interview, he asserts, “The police officer had no reason to spray those kids.” He continues saying that tear gas is used to clear people from an area and that pepper spray is used to immobilize people the police don’t want to leave. He also links to a new web site where he offers advice on criminal defense for people who are arrested and need an attorney. On his Facebook page, he describes the effects of pepper spray and cites as a reference the U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice’s Evaluation of Pepper Spray.
The Evaluation of Pepper Spray used Baltimore P.D. as their laboratory and the SOP authored by Lieutenant Key as the guide for both their study and conclusions. In the study, DOJ says, “According to (Baltimore PD) procedures, OC (pepper) spray may be used by an officer in any arrest situation when:
• The aggressor has failed to comply with the officer’s verbal instructions.
• The aggressor has been advised of OC’s impending use.”
The report also notes that injuries to both officers and suspects decreased, as did assaults on Officers after the Department adopted the use of pepper spray. The overall tone of the DoJ evaluation is an endorsement of both the Baltimore PD and pepper spray. This is all pretty much in direct conflict with Okorocha’s representations.
On the same page, Okorocha makes a gallant attempt to be objective and waxes magnanimous about the disposition of the officers:
“Just a note. I represent good cops and the victims of bad ones. So I have a lot of experience in this area. Neither the University, nor any agency that employs police officers can fire them without a hearing and due process… I know… I know… It is just the law and it does help protect some good cops and whistleblowers… It is good that Pike has not been fired YET. That is something that could result in the officer suing and winning a huge judgment. BUT I want him arrested NOW.”
That’s nice of him.
As might be hoped, Fox News had a few seconds of more even handed reporting. This Fox report provides much more context and insight and shows the protestors challenging the police at the scene. It shows the police surrounded and explains that they were trying to leave the area when the (soon to be pepper sprayed protestors) blocked their path, linked arms, and dared them to take action. Then, after the immediate crisis was past, the protestors challenged the University administration authority to run the campus and moved back into the Quad and setup more tents.
But other Fox reports, fell short. In another report, Fox interviews two young women who had been sprayed (in the videos referenced below and the Good Morning America video one of them is visible on the sidewalk blocking the police officers’ egress from the Quad) describing the “excruciating painful” experience. Another young woman describes the use of the pepper spray as “a human rights violation.” A video of the actual spraying is shown and the reporter speaks of “officers casually spraying it in the faces of protestors who were peacefully sitting and linking arms” and “campus police say that despite conduct of a few officers.”
While this may be unintentional on behalf of Fox News, it seems to suggest that the officers have been already been convicted of misconduct and are awaiting trial and a fair execution.
Almost all of the reporting treats the incident as though it happened in a vacuum free of the defining influences of other events and history. It is incomplete and, as a result, inaccurate and misleading. All of the information and evidence discussed below was available at the same time and on the same website, and in many cases, from the same videographer as the video(s) used by the various news agencies
Prior to this incident, there had been other public safety concerns and incidents involving the protests-particularly protestors who were not students or University employees. These are indicated in an 18 November “Chancellor’s Message” to the protestors on the quad: “We are aware that many of those involved in the recent demonstrations on campus are not members of the UC Davis community. This requires us to be even more vigilant about the safety of our students, faculty and staff. While we have appreciated the peaceful and respectful tone of the demonstrations to date, the current encampment raises serious health, safety and legal concerns, and the resources we require to supervise this encampment cannot be sustained, especially in these very tight economic times. Our resources must support our core mission to educate all of our students.”
She concludes with “I must now ask that all tents be peacefully removed by 3:00 p.m. today in the interest of safety, respect for our campus environment and in accordance with our Principles of Community.”
The Chancellor issued another message Friday afternoon, after the incident. In that, she writes, “I am writing to tell you about events that occurred Friday afternoon at UC Davis relating to a group of protestors who chose to set up an encampment on the quad Thursday…
“The group did not respond to requests from administration and campus police to comply with campus rules that exist to protect the health and safety of our campus community. The group was informed in writing this morning that the encampment violated regulations designed to protect the health and safety of students, staff and faculty. The group was further informed that if they did not dismantle the encampment, it would have to be removed.
“Following our requests, several of the group chose to dismantle their tents … and we are grateful for their actions. However a number of protestors refused our warning, offering us no option but to ask the police to assist in their removal…”
Several hundred videos were shot by spectators and participants. The three videos I reference here were shot by the same person and posted to You Tube as Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Part 1 shows the protestors milling about unlawful encampment and at one point a man tells everyone to video everything that happens and put it on You Tube “tonight.” This also shows the police arriving and the protestors coming together to block their access to the tents. The protestors have linked arms and you can hear the protestors taunting them: “Shame on you,” “Cops off Campus” and “We are not afraid.” The police bullhorn seems to malfunction and the officer moves closer and uses his voice to declare the unlawful assembly. Someone in the crowd has a functioning bullhorn and outshouts him. The police get a functioning bullhorn, move closer, and make the announcement over the bullhorn. “I say for the third time…” then the officers move forward and take a number of subjects into custody. Most of the arrestees appear to resist and are forced to the ground and handcuffed. The maximum force that is visible during this period is several officers on each suspect forcing them down on the ground where they are flex cuffed.
Part 2 the officers have suspects in custody and you can hear someone leading the chants. “Set them free, set them free.” When the officers begin to move, the protestors move with them. By the time the officers have reached the concrete pathway through the center of the quad, they have been out flanked, surrounded, and a group has linked arms and blocking the path, they had been leaving on. The officers have formed a “Roman Square” with the in-custody suspects in the center. Lt Pike walks along the path to the first rank of protestors, they are sitting with their arms around each other, some have their legs intertwined, and with the protestor camera perhaps less than a yard away, he tells the sitting protestors that they, the police are coming through here. You can see him gesturing as he explains this. A loud male voice is yelling, “This is bullshit!” Then the protestors chant, “Don’t shoot them” and “Cops off campus.” ‘”From Davis to Greece, fuck the police.” “You use weapons, we use our voice.” The Lieutenant appears to do this twice.
Part 3. This part begins with the Lieutenant apparently telling the protestors who were blocking the path that the officers were coming between them and asking them to move aside. The crowd is chanting “Don’t you do it.” You can hear the leader of the chants, but I couldn’t identify him. During part two, an officer left and returned. Now, the Lieutenant is holding and shaking a pepper spray canister. The crowd chants “Don’t you do it.” You can see the protestors zipping up their jackets and pulling their caps low on their heads. A man says, “They’re about to spray, they’re coming through here, too.” The Lieutenant holds the spray can aloft, showing it to the crowd, steps over the protestors blocking the path, turns and starts to spray. The officers then proceed to take the protestors who were blocking the path into custody. Some officers are holding their batons, most are not. There is a lot of wrestling, but no striking. The police move in formation along the path with their prisoners. The cameraman taking this video moves to the rear of the movement and continues to video.
After all of this, the Chancellor began her palpably painful public death dance. First supporting, then condemning campus police, now seeking refuge in outside opinions. Listening to her ensuing entreaties for mercy and understanding, I recall the voice of an unseen young man’s vituperative shout-“Get the fuck out of here”-and I wonder if she had any idea of the firestorm that was yet to come. In a possible attempt to appear objective and perhaps share the pain and spotlight with someone more experienced in these matters, either the University or the Chancellor has hired a former LAPD Chief to investigate and report and the District Attorney’s Office was also asked to investigate and presumably prosecute any crimes committed by the police. The DA has enlisted the assistance of the Sheriff’s Department and said they will review and comment.
Somewhere in all of this, the Chancellor seems to have offered up the Chief, the Lieutenant and one junior officer as sacrifices to the Gods of campus opinion and, by relying on these outside inquiries, regardless of their outcomes, she can always point the finger at somebody else for the undoubtedly climatic decision to come.
Symbolic of the practical result of all of this is a photo on the Occupy UC Davis website of three male detainees in the department holding tank prior to being released on their own recognizance. They are smiling and jovial and appear to have completely recovered from any pepper spray that was used on them. That photo and the videotaped interviews of fashionably ruffled smiling young women with glowing skin and pretty faces, complaining about the excruciating pain they experienced when they were sprayed-documentary proof that they can share with their frat bothers and sorority sisters and grandkids that they were famous for 15 minutes-pretty much identify the winners in this. Well, the news media owners and shareholders, too.
There is something positive in this experience. Recently, news commentators, propagandists and some reporters have drawn parallels between enforcement actions by UC Davis police, and other American police departments, and the police actions in Tahrir Square, Syria and Yemen. While common sense might tell some people that pepper spray is very different from machine guns, the comparison seems to be popular. On the other hand, this incident would seem to indicate that some people do still trust American Police Officers. This trust is evident in the behavior and laughter of the participants in this transitory act of civil disobedience.
I don’t think any of these kids are ready to die for this cause or be physically crippled for life. All of these young folks implicitly trusted the police not to pull their firearms and blast the protestors to pieces or be otherwise excessively violent and beat them into bloody pulps and they trusted the police not to use chemical agents that would deface or otherwise permanently injure them. No matter how loudly these children and agitating crazies compare American cops to Egyptian, Syrian or Yemeni cops, in their hearts and minds, they knew and know that the danger of experiencing intentionally inflicted physical harm at the hands of blue suited American police officers was and is slim.
These are trying times, but not the end of the world. Public protest is an American tradition that dates back to the Pilgrims. Bottom line-all of this is more proof yet that it ain’t easy being America, but after all is said and done, we’re still here and we’re going to be here for a long time more-in spite of the free and independent news media so vital to our democratic form of government.
Lessons can be learned in this.
- 1. When officials like the Chancellor make a political decision to use the police to resolve a problem, they and their staff need to make sure they understand the potential consequences.
- 2. Police leadership should press the political leadership for written instructions in these matters. This minimizes the effect of lapses in the memories of the political leadership when everything goes to hell. If they are instructed to do something obviously illegal, destructive of the police or simply stupid, they should refuse and live with the consequences.
- 3. Police officers should be sure to keep up the payments on their legal defense insurance.
- 4. Student protestors should view this instructive video by Chris Rock prior to refusing to comply with lawful orders from the police: How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.