The saddest thing about the UC Davis pepper spray incident is that the press is not reporting the incident in its entirety, nor is the press considering what other things may have occurred.
First, there’s the question of why the police were there. Presumably, they had been dispatched by some campus authority to disperse the demonstrators. This is evidently why they showed up in numbers and wearing what police call “riot gear.”
Second, nowhere in the accounts is there a description of what the police did to disperse the crowd before the pepper spray incident. Surely, they didn’t simply walk up and initiate the pepper spray action without first asking the protesters to disband and peacefully leave the area. But this is not recorded in the press accounts. It would be enlightening and perhaps even game changing if we knew exactly what happened in the minutes and hours before the pepper spray incident. But we don’t, thanks to incomplete, if not irresponsible reporting.
But in the absence of this information, let’s assume that the police made an effort to address the crowd and professionally and courteously asked them to disperse, or risk arrest. Any such effort clearly failed. This leaves the police with only a few options. They can retreat and leave the protesters alone, but that would be to deny their charged duty to clear the area. Alternately, they could forcibly attempt to arrest and remove the protesters. Many of the protesters were seated with arms interlocked. This means police would have had to physically engage them. The fact that the protesters were seated leaves police trying to disengage them from one another at a balance disadvantage. The cops have to bend over or crouch down to try to physically disengage any one individual, bring him or her to their feet and affect the arrest. The fact that the protesters had interlocked their arms was surely an effort to avoid any one individual being removed for arrest. There’s no way of knowing how strongly the protesters would have fought disengagement, but the fact is, they were inducing, baiting if you will, physical confrontation from the police. And this sort of situation doesn’t bode well for anyone. The risk of physical injury to both the individual protesters and the police is enormous. Further, in any physical contact there is likely to be a flare of temper and passion which only exacerbates the combat and the general situation.
So the police were stuck. Do they walk away, or do they physically try to arrest and remove the protesters. The decision apparently fell to the latter. However, aware of the risks involved in physically wrestling with the protesters, the police decided to first use a police tool designed to make non-compliant persons more manageable by putting them in a temporary state of discomfort: pepper spray.
Were the protesters warned in advance? Again, we don’t know, as the reports don’t tell us whether any formal announcement was made, but the presence of the officer seen in the video was a clear warning in and of itself. Any one of those protesters seated before him could see he was about to apply some sort of gas or spray, and the protesters, at least at that moment when the video starts to run, were well aware of what was about to occur. More importantly, at that moment any one of them could have stopped it. They could have said “Wait a minute—I’ll move!” and with that started to comply with the police orders. But they didn’t. Rather, aware that some sort of spray was about to be dispensed, they hid their faces, another sign that they knew what was about to occur.
Did it have to come to that? The simple answer is no. The protesters deserve the bulk of the blame. They provoked it by not complying with the police, hence breaking the law. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the provocation by the protesters was intentional, possibly in hopes of inciting the police to escalated physical confrontation. Certainly the jeers from the crowd, “Shame on you,” were also designed to provoke the police.
Shame on all the protesters. They collectively provoked the incident and then continued to verbally provoke the officers on the scene. They knew exactly what they were doing.
Finally, the press finds some tremendous flaw in the dispassionate way in which the police officer dispensed the pepper spray. What, pray tell, would they have found preferable? An officer giving a stern warning: “If you people don’t move in the next ten seconds, I’m going to gas you!” Or perhaps some might prefer an officer who would taunt the protesters, saying something like, “Okay kids, playtime is over. No more Mr. Nice Guy…” The fact is, no matter what the officer might say, the protesters (and perhaps the press) would use it to their advantage.
No statement is required from the police once a situation has reached the point that this one did. The protesters knew what was about to happen, they could have changed it by complying, but didn’t. The officer’s dispassionate approach was the best possible approach to avoid escalating the situation while doing what he had to do. Unless someone believes that the officer should have been apologizing: “Gee, I’m sorry I have to do this, but it’s my job, y’know?” What else would be appropriate? No doubt that officer was given the order to dispense the pepper spray. He did so without any sign of either disgust or joy in doing it. He simply did what was seen as the next step necessary to affect the dispersal of the crowd. And the crowd, on the other hand, became more unruly and threatening to the police. Again, they, the crowd en masse, were the provocateurs, chanting and focusing on the police.
The fact that the crowd became more threatening and unruly led the police to withdraw, a prudent step at that point, as it was clear the situation had hit a plateau and could only get more heated or less, but could not sustain itself at that level of emotion. Again, this was not owing to the police actions, for they clearly only intended to keep on doing what they had already started to do, that is, physically remove the protesters. But the crowd was becoming more vocal and threatening. So to avoid more physical confrontation, the police withdrew.
In the end, this incident was an unfortunate one for all involved. But the way the press has treated this is a travesty. They have tried and convicted the police of some sort of brutality, which is fictional. Furthermore, they fail to provide all the facts necessary to fairly judge exactly what happened in this incident. For my part, until all the facts are in, I’ll reserve any judgment about the police. As for the protesters, in my view they clearly provoked this situation. What’s not clear is how fast it escalated and what efforts to defuse the situation were made before the spray was dispensed. These may be mitigating factors, but only to a degree. The fact is, the protesters resisted the police, and that is a violation of law. We live in a land ruled by law, not mobs. Consequently, in the end the responsibility for this incident rests with the protesters, not the police.
You can send a message of support for the police to Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi at firstname.lastname@example.org