I've watched a few different videos of the UC Davis pepper-spray incident. In case you've missed it, a number of protesters at the college, inspired by both the nationwide "Occupy" movement and the ever-increasing tuition at California state schools, staged a sit-in. They were confronted by campus police, one of whom (as the video shows) strolled along the line of seated students, pepper-spraying them casually as if he were freshening his living room with Febreze.
For the record, I like the police. I respect the police. I think police officers do a difficult and often dangerous job, and any time I have had to deal with police, I have found them helpful and considerate. So I want to give the police the benefit of the doubt when possible. And I am sure that the police officers involved in this incident will offer some kind of justification for their actions. But watching the various videos, I can see none.
For me, the most distasteful moment comes early on, as the officer triumphantly brandishes the can of pepper spray before the crowd. Perhaps he is warning the seated students about what's about to happen, but, if so, why isn't he facing them? Instead, he appears to be addressing the watching crowd. The way he waves the can around reminds one of nothing so much as a magician showing the audience that he's picked the correct card. There is something so stylized in the motion, and then so casual about the way he walks down his row of victims, that it looks as though the policeman is performing--like this is some big moment for which he's rehearsed.
What's also striking is the sheer arrogance of the police. It was shocking when the video of policemen clubbing Rodney King surfaced: It was sheer luck (if that's the right word) that a witness with a camera happened to be in position to capture the action. But in Friday's incident, the police could see cameras all around--both professional caliber video gear and ubiquitous cell phones recording every wretched moment.
One wonders if the police will use the very fact of the cameras' obvious presence as a defense: Of course we were justified! How stupid would we have to be to pepper-spray helpless students--unprovoked--when we know there are cameras everywhere?
How stupid indeed?