UC Davis police pepper spray incident an embarrassment and sad day for freedom of assembly in America

Last Friday was a sad day for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in America.

The pepper-spraying of a group of nonviolent student demonstrators at UC Davis on Friday appears to have been an example of excessive and unimaginative police work, and might possibly have been abusive. UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi has reportedly assigned a task force to investigate, and she should.

Reports that groups of students were “cutting police off from their support” and that, according to UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, this was a “volatile situation,” should certainly be taken into careful consideration by the task force that investigates. True, pictures–even videotape–can present a distorted picture. If, for instance, large groups of students had purposely surrounded police in order to cut individual officers off from backup support and were engaged in a kind of passive aggressive attempt to intimidate police then this was not, strictly speaking, a nonviolent protest. Also, not being a police officer in the situation, I would not presume to assert there was zero possibility of a riot and so would refrain from making any definitive judgment. But from the video, it does not appear that the police officer who sprayed these students in their faces at point-blank range with a carcinogenic substance was being physically attacked or threatened, or that he was in any danger.

In his book, “The Case for Democracy: the Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” former Knesset member, author, and human rights activist Natan Sharansky writes that the difference between a free society and a fear society is that in a fear society–a classification he applied to countries subject to totalitarian rule–one cannot stand in the public square and proclaim any opinion (short of call to incitement) without fear. A free society, in contrast, can be identified by its insistence upon upholding the right of any individual to publicly proclaim any viewpoint, however unpopular, without fear of physical violence or intimidation.

While it is true that even in the U.S., demonstrators can legally be subject to time and place restrictions in their rights to speech and assembly, the idea that U.S. citizens do have the right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in our First Amendment. These student demonstrators were by most accounts, and by appearance on the widely circulated video, nonviolent. When students cannot nonviolently protest tuition hikes on their own campus without fear for their physical safety, it seems to me a sad day for American democracy.

Perhaps in hunkering down on campus, these students did present an obstacle to other students and members of the campus community. Even if one assumes something did need to be done to disperse them (which is unclear to me), it seems to me the standard used by UC Davis police would probably not pass muster, for example, in Israel, where the Israel Defense Forces succeeded in evacuating entire communities of recalcitrant settlers from their homes in Gaza without serious injury to anyone.

As a journalist and opinion writer who covers human rights abuse–including the violent suppression of speech in faraway places–I am embarrassed by the conduct of this police officer and by what happened at UC Davis last Friday.

This entry was written by and posted on November 22, 2011 at 8:11 pm and filed under Blog.