Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pepper Spray at UC Davis

A police officer sprays pepper spray at UC Davis
Video is all over the Internet this morning of a police officer at University of California at Davis walking up and down a row of seated, passive protesters, spraying them in the face with pepper spray.

The video has sparked quite a bit of outrage in various circles across the political spectrum, including calls for an investigation and calls from the faculty association for the university's chancellor to resign. Last night, as the chancellor walked to her car, three solid blocks of protesters lined up on either side of her and stood in absolute silence as she walked past. That's quite a video to see, too.

This isn't the first, nor will it be the last, use of force against Occupy Wall Street protesters. That is a statement of fact, not a political commentary or even a critique of the police. It's gotten me thinking, though, about the affect on the protesters of being subject to or witnessing this violence.

On the one hand, by this point in the movement's history, protesters, even those who have no intention of breaking any laws, have to know that this is a possible outcome. That is especially true when you consider the following analysis, offered in the Associated Press:

Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department's use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a "compliance tool" that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters.

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

After reviewing the video, Kelly said he observed at least two cases of "active resistance" from protesters. In one instance, a woman pulls her arm back from an officer. In the second instance, a protester curls into a ball. Each of those actions could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques.

"What I'm looking at is fairly standard police procedure," Kelly said.

If this is standard police procedure, then it's not terribly hard to imagine a very docile protest getting to the point of pepper spray. One might argue, then, that it doesn't traumatize the protesters because they know it's coming or, to be more extreme, they brought it on themselves.

This seemed to be the take of the Chancellor, whose statement on the incident said:

We deeply regret that many of the protestors today chose not to work with our campus staff and police to remove the encampment as requested. We are even more saddened by the events that subsequently transpired to facilitate their removal.
Whether this is acceptable police behavior or not, and whether these protesters deserved it or not, however, is entirely beside the point when it comes to deciding whether it was traumatic. Blame and fault don't actually have anything to do whatsoever with trauma. You can be traumatized by something you did intentionally or by its consequences.

What makes an event traumatic lies in the internal reaction of the person. If what happened is terrifying or horrifying to you, the question of whether you knew or should have known it was coming, or whether it was your fault, is irrelevant. That means that these students, and many protesters around the country in the last few weeks, may well need early trauma intervention services. My guess is that few are getting them, although I don't know for sure.

Occupy Wall Street is organized by "working groups" that take on everything from cooking to PR to sanitation. I think OWS now needs a trauma intervention working group -- the OWS CISM team. Sign me up.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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