We have seen it over and over again, as protesters rise to challenge an unfair economy and corrupt government, the police reaction is to abuse protesters often with pepper spray. Over and over, the result has been not a diminished protest movement but an expanding one. The mass of people in all the countries where these protests occur are sympathetic to the cause of a fair economy and responsive government. When they see the government abuse people it moves many to join the effort.
The first example came from Occupy Wall Street when on the first weekend after OWS began, the police arrested people involved in a protest march. Among those arrested were women being held behind an orange mesh curtain. Commanding officer Tony Bologna walked over to the women and pepper sprayed them in the face.
On MSNBC Lawrence O’Donnell, the son of a police officer, discussed the impact showing sympathy to Occupy and criticism of the police. He showed videotapes of the attack by Deputy Inspector Bologna describing the spraying as being “for absolutely no reason.” He pointed out the protesters gave him no cause: “He just indiscriminately sprays people as he marches down the sidewalk. He’s spraying people who are walking away from him, they are not resisting him in any way.” He even went on to put the police on trial for first trying to justify the attack, until multiple camera angles from the citizen’s media showed there was no justification, and then predicting a cover-up: “The culture of the department will do every it possibly can to protect Inspector Bologna and it remains very very unlikely that the police department investigation will result in the disciplining of Officer Bologna or any other officer. The spirit of these investigations is always a mix of investigation and instinctive institutional cover-up.”
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The incident was highlighted and mocked by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, Stewart speculated that perhaps, since it was a hot day, he was “reaching for his canister of cooling, cucumber mist spray—and grabbed the pepper spray by accident.” And, while mocking Bologna, Stewart gave attention to the occupy movement. The incident was also covered on the Today Show, local news outlets and newspapers including the New York Times.
In the end, Bologna was found to be in violation of the rules and merely lost 10 days vacation (which meant he was on the job even more) and the New York District Attorney refused to prosecute Bologna. But when Bologna was sued in two federal lawsuits, the city refused to defend him. Not only did Bologna lose out, but the occupy movement got lots of local and national media attention, people sympathetic to the cause became enraged and joined their ranks at a critical stage when the movement was struggling to get started.
But, the lesson was not learned. At UC Davis in California six weeks later, the police pepper sprayed a group of students participating in the occupy had their tents destroyed and then when they were sitting nonviolently in a line were pepper sprayed by Lieutenant John Pike, the pepper-sprayer, producing this iconic image.
Once again, there was video of the protest and anger at the police behavior. Business insider reported, venture capitalist Chris Sacca, sums up the reactions of lots of people: “Seriously. Right now. Stop what you are doing, watch this video, and reflect on what it means to be American”
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Shortly after the pepper spraying incident, the chancellor of UC Davis, Linda Katehi, who had refused to demand Pike’s resignation, had to run the silent gauntlet as hundreds of students lined up and stood and sat silently as she walked passed them to her car, and did the same as she drove out of the university. This very powerful silent protest defined the Occupy Movement as strategically nonviolent and allowed it to continue to grow.
In the end the chancellor, the police command and the police involved were criticized in a scathing report. One week later, the UC Davis police chief resigned, as did Lt. Pike. And, lawsuits filed by the students were settled for $1 million.
But, the lesson was still not learned in the US. Also in November. the Seattle police used pepper spray against protesters marching in the street. Among those attacked was 84 year old Dorli Rainey:
The photo of an 84 year old doused with pepper sprayed was bad enough, but the Seattle Post Intelligencer published a series of photos that showed indiscriminate, wild use of pepper spray. Not only was Rainey hit, so was a priest, and reportedly, a pregnant women.
All of these incidents hurt the government, especially the police, while growing the movement.
Now, the same has been happening in Greece and Turkey. Among the many abusive police practices reported in both countries from each country was the use of pepper spray. In Greece, it was the famous “Lady in Red” who was not even participating in the protests, just walking by on May 28th, only the sixth day of the protest.
People credit the attack on her as turning a protest of dozens into a mass national revolt. Indeed, the attack produced the iconic image below which was published on posters appearing in Turkey with a message: “The more they spray, the bigger we get.”
And, now the image has re-appeared in its Brazilian version. The defining image of the protests in Brazil, which exemplify that over-the-top police reaction, is a photo of a woman standing alone being doused by a spray by a police officer.
The photographer, Victor Caivano, told the NY City Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer that the woman, who appeared to be a “normal, middle-class university student,” was standing completely alone at around 11:20 p.m. yesterday on a “deserted corner” after the police had cleared the area. “The protest was over, riots included,” Caivano says. Three riot officers approached the woman and told her to leave. When she objected — the woman either questioned the order or insisted that she wasn’t doing anything wrong, Caivano recalls — she was pepper-sprayed. “This policeman just didn’t think twice,” Caivano says. Indeed, as the uncropped photo shows the woman standing alone, no other protesters nearby.
The Brazilian protests have become the largest in the country’s last twenty years. The police violence helped turn protests against raising the fares on buses into a protest about deep corruption in government, poor government services and the unfair wealth divide that plagues neo-liberal capitalist policies around the world.
Pepper spray has replaced the attack dogs of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, as people challenge corrupt government that is working on behalf of the wealthy and not the people; an unfair economy the sends wealth to the top while most people struggle to get by, the image of government abuse of citizens has become pepper spray. The use of the spray has produced consistent results — iconic photographs and videos that lead sympathy for protesters, criticism of police and a bigger movement. In every incident, it has been nonviolent protesters — and their nonviolence is critical to the growth of the movement — attacked by police without justification.
The other lesson in these examples is that the police involved end up paying the price, often with their careers. Police should stop following orders to abuse protesters, realize that the fair economy we are working for will create a better life for them and their families; and join the people. The message to the police and security forces is: Get on the right side of history.