This has been a bad week to be a professor in the University of California system. Both on my campus and at UC Davis, students inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, seeking to draw attention to the defunding of public education, were met by police who used techniques that none of us on the faculties of these universities, or others across the country, thought were standard operating procedure.

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Chili peppers: the source for pepper spray

At Berkeley, students and faculty, including the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Haas, were beaten with batons and in some cases grabbed by the hair and thrown to the ground.

At Davis, students sitting quietly on the ground, in a scene reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement, were doused with pepper spray by police who can only claim that they felt threatened by the nonviolent students.

Similar use of pepper spray, of course, sparked the New York City Occupy movement's first real mainstream news coverage. While the Davis students were being attacked, so were others, including Methodist minister Rich Lang whose account should appal anyone who thinks that ministers engaged in nonviolent protest should not be brutalized.

Almost worse than the incidents, though, is what they reveal about what has become routine in policing in America. As the former police chief of Seattle, Norm Stamper—veteran of the 1999 protests against the WTO, which produced violent police confrontations with protesters—writes, policiing in the US has been "militarized".

And the enemy is us.

Stamper's disavowal of these police tactics—based on his reflection on his own decisions—stands in sharp contrast with the widely-quoted statements of another former police official, Charles Kelley of Baltimore, quoted as saying the UC Davis incident is "fairly standard police procedure". Kelley claims that pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that "can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters".

The claim by Kelley and others that use of pepper spray is "standard" comes in the face of outrage across the country about these sickening incidents. It seems that what is standard—or normal—for some is abnormal—abhorrent—to others. What we have here is a cultural difference dividing a culture of policing from the people the police are supposed to serve and protect.

Where did this division come from? Trying to understand this sent me on a journey through policies on police use of pepper spray and reviews of pepper spray use after incidents going back more than a decade.

What I found was that while it may be "standard" for police to use pepper spray against unresisting subjects, it is an unauthorized standard. It violates the rules laid down for the very officers who, we are told, think this is a "preferable" way to handle protesters. What we are seeing is the division between a rule and a practice, and in the deep divide between the two is horror for all of us who thought there were rules and that they mattered.

All the policies I reviewed concurred that the justification for use of pepper spray was threat of violence, or actual violence in practice (even though there is debate about whether pepper spray actually works on the kind of person most likely to resist arrest violently). Guidelines from police manuals call for one second bursts of spray from at least three feet away—not what is seen in any of the recent incidents.

What is happening here seems to be redefinition of what violence is, and means. The ever-helpful Kelley "identified" two instances at UC Davis that he defined as "active resistance" of police, in his view justifying police use of pepper spray.

In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball.

In other words, resistance now includes not following orders. The entire category of nonviolent civil disobedience is made to disappear.

Kelley goes further, explaining that pepper spray prevents injury to those who, resisting passively, might be injured if the officers tried to pick them up while arresting them:

"When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them," Kelly said. "Bodies don't have handles on them."

Orwellian has become an over-used term, but this is truly Orwellian: to avoid hurting the protesters, you deliberately inflict pain on them.

Because that is what pepper spray is for: pain. Pain and punishment.

In a sixteenth-century painted manuscript today known as the Codex Mendoza, a few pages depict what are represented as norms of raising children among the Mexica of Central Mexico (commonly referred to as the Aztecs). These idealizations—which should be thought of as formal idealizations, not norms—include the actions that children were threatened with if they were not compliant with authority. We have no way of knowing if these actions were ever carried out, or how often: but what is clear is that they were corporal punishments. And primary among them was exposing a defiant child to the smoke from burning chili peppers.

That relationship—of domination by threat of punishment—is what, for me, hovers in the background every time pepper spray is used by police on the people. And policing should not be punishment.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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