Most readers have probably already watched the videos of protesters at UC Davis being pepper sprayed and/or videos of protesters at UC Berkeley being hit with batons. As someone who studies protest policing, I wish I could say that I was as surprised as I am appalled. I have been writing for a while about violence that occurs “incident to arrest,” at protests, which can be quite substantial. That phrase is the police lingo for violence that occurs as part of making an arrest, and it can cover a truly substantial amount of violence. Moreover, as one of the protesters who was pepper sprayed at UC Davis discusses in this interview, the pain that can come with physical holds, flexicuffs, and chemical weapons can be quite debilitating. Yet, social movement scholars have not given violence associated with arrests much attention. Instead, as an intellectual community, we tend to (I think wrongly) assume that arrests are choreographed affairs of little short term or long term impact on protests. This may be true of a small fraction of arrests, but it is certainly not true of all protest-related arrests and is only true at the discretion of the police. Perhaps incidents like these will lead us to collectively reconsider this view of arrests as somehow violence-free encounters.
Encounters like the one at UC Davis should also prompt a larger conversation about when “pain compliance” techniques are justified. For those not familiar with the phrase, the idea of pain compliance is that police can apply techniques, ranging from physical holds to the use of less than lethal weapons like pepper spray or tazers, to gain compliance with an order. Pain compliance has been routinely used on violent subjects as a way of making arrests without unholstering a firearm. But, the use of these techniques has become much more common, to the point where pain compliance is sometimes used to gain compliance more quickly or easily (from the officer’s perspective) from non-violent subjects—in other words, it has, in some cases, turned into a tool for police efficiency.
There were early warning signs of this shift as long ago as 1997 when police in Humboldt County, California used q-tips to directly apply pepper spray to the eyes of non-violent protesters, as well as direct sprays not unlike what was observed at UC Davis. Although a lawsuit eventually found the technique to be inappropriate, it was taught to California police officers as an approved method for non-violent crowd control through the California POST. If you want to read more on this case, visit: http://nopepperspray.org/
One of the key questions posed by such weapons, or any pain compliance technique for that matter, is under what circumstances should such techniques be used? Is efficiency a justifiable use? I would hope not, but some police departments and officers have argued for such uses. Should these techniques be restricted to situations where there are physical threats to an officer, and if so, how imminent and severe must the threat be? These are deeply consequential questions and I can say based on having class discussions with undergraduates in classes year after year on the subject—opinions vary widely. Although we are not likely to reach a legal answer to these general questions any time soon, it is within the power of campus police departments to address these specific questions and clarify their use of force policies, particularly where non-violent subjects are involved.