“… the accepted report of an event is of greater importance than the event, for what we think about and act upon is the symbolic report and not the concrete event itself.” — William M. Ivins, Jr., Prints and Visual Communication (1953)
If I’ve tracked the denouement of the UC Davis “pepper-spray cop” story at considerable (and for some, I’m sure, stupefying) length, I’ve done so because it exemplifies for me the best results that citizen journalism and ― if I may coin a related category ― citizen op-ed can achieve using digital technology.
Just as William Ivins reminds us that the report of an event differs from the event itself, Alfred Korzybski cautioned that “the map is not the territory.” Yet a multi-perspectival report like the collective visual documentation of the November 18, 2011 police attack on seated students has a self-correcting aspect that makes it extremely persuasive, enough so that it has standing in courts of law, and certainly in the court of public opinion.
Were it not for all that still and video documentation, in the late afternoon of November 18, 2011 we’d have found ourselves in a protesters’-word-vs.-police-officers’-word situation, with the cops’ version most likely prevailing in the absence of hard evidence to the contrary. And, since the protesters and onlookers would probably not have had the ability to recognize and differentiate between MK-4 and MK-9, Pike and his “troops,” as he liked to militarize them semantically, would only have had to rustle up a few cans of authorized MK-4 while hiding the prohibited MK-9 in order to appear to have followed the rules.
So we’d have had a short news story reporting that UC Davis campus police had pepper-sprayed and arrested two dozen unruly students. I doubt that it would have lasted more than two news cycles.
Instead, Pike ― brandishing his jumbo-sized can of MK-9 for all the world like the surly waiter at your local trattoria with his giant pepper mill ― and the officer he ordered to assist him lost their jobs. Their disgraced commander, UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, took early retirement. UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi, to whom Spicuzza reported, held on to her job by the skin of her teeth (she’d have been unemployable elsewhere had she not), but now governs a campus where she has undergone censure from the faculty senate and internationally broadcast shaming by the students. And Mark Yudof, recently retired as her superior, the former president of the entire University of California system, left with his reputation as a staunch First Amendment advocate in tatters.
All of that because, fortunately, the photographic documentation enabled the citizenry at large to verify the fact that the protesters never represented any serious threat to Pike and his accomplices, who carried and deployed a much larger, more powerful canister of pepper spray than university regulations allowed. Which made liars out of Pike, Spicuzza, and Katehi, caught squirming in the web woven of their fabrications as the damning visual evidence emerged and spread virally on the internet.
Also because the editorial commentary thereon, the “pepper-spray cop” meme premised on the image of Pike nonchalantly at his work, didn’t just follow and illustrate the documentation but enriched the story and to a certain extent drove it ―initially on the internet and via social media, but immediately thereafter in the press and on TV news. The meme and its overnight metastasis became integral to the story, amplifying the PR nightmare that still haunts Yudof, Katehi, and their underlings.
Beyond the professional and personal consequences to the principals in this crisis, the visual documentation and op-ed commentary had other, tangible results. The $1 million settlement with the victims. The establishment of a Professional Standards Unit within the UC Davis Police Dept., “responsible for investigating and coordinating all complaints alleged against employees.” Reorganization of the police departments throughout the UC system, and creation of one coordinated set of policies and practices for them all. UC consulting with the ACLU to develop policies for handling future demonstrations. And an assortment of other reforms.
Not for Internal Consumption
If you’re doing your last-minute holiday shopping and thinking that a can of pepper spray would make a perfect stocking stuffer for someone you love, consider this: Do you want him or her dousing Santa with this stuff when he makes his yearly home invasion on Xmas Eve?
Since pepper spray plays such a central role in the UC Davis narrative, it merits some attention. According to the official reports, which rely on this still and video documentation, “Officers were authorized to use less powerful spray cans, but not the MK-9, which produces a stream of irritant chemical rather than a spray.” You can watch the spraying here, from four coordinated perspectives. If you watch this video, you’ll clearly see “Two-Gun” Pike actually commandeering a second can of MK-9 from another officer, holding one in each hand, and shaking them both in preparation for another attack before the police decide to retreat. (Around 6:15 in.)
Despite the blithe, ignorant opining of right-wing ditz Megyn Kelly on Fox News that “It’s a food product, essentially,” pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum, or OC) is a dangerous and potentially lethal substance, especially when used incorrectly. See the Beaumont, TX Press-Enterprise story, “Police officer accused of blinding woman,” datelined April 26, 2012.
In 1987 pepper spray became the official chemical agent of the FBI. Thereafter the FBI endorsed the use of pepper spray by police nationwide, recommending it to law enforcement agencies via a series of reports authored by its chief chemical weapons expert, Special Agent Thomas Ward, the head of the FBI’s Less-Than-Lethal Weapons Program. In July 1989 they wired one of his reports to every local police agency in the U.S. In 1990, Ward toured the country touting one particular brand, Cap-Stun, as the FBI’s pepper spray of choice.
In spring 1996 Ward was sentenced to two months in Federal prison and three years’ probation for ”accepting an unlawful gratuity [after] Mr. Ward admitted taking $57,500 in kickbacks from a pepper-spray manufacturer [Luckey Police Products of Fort Lauderdale, FL, makers of Cap-Stun] … [f]rom December 1989 through 1990,” according to a May 20, 1996 report in the New York Times.
Though the FBI had premised its endorsement of pepper spray on Ward’s patently compromised “research,” this conviction of their ousted and disgraced researcher did not lead to the FBI’s rescinding of its enthusiasm for the efficacy of OC. (See also attorney Lynn Wilson’s 1997 paper, “The Use and Abuse of Pepper Spray.”)
For one consequence of the FBI’s touting of pepper spray to the law-enforcement community, see the horrific 1997 video of Earth First! activists tortured by the sadistic Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department of California, via direct application of pepper spray to their eyelids with cotton swabs. (The thugs ultimately held responsible by the federal court: Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis and Chief Deputy Sheriff Gary Philip.)
Humboldt County subsequently lost a federal lawsuit brought against them by the victims, establishing as a precedent in federal law that using pepper spray on nonviolent demonstrators was unconstitutional. Widely publicized in California, this cannot have escaped the attention of Lee, Pike, and Spicuzza. Which goes to prove, once again, the truth of Richard Kirstel’s dictum, “Ignorance is a condition; dumbness is a commitment.”
Don’t Stand So Close to Me
Kamran Loghman, one of the people who helped develop pepper spray into a weapons-grade material for the FBI in the ’80s, told The New York Times in re the UC Davis event, “I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents.”
Without question, any civilian who used that same MK-9 at this distance on another civilian in the absence of a direct physical threat would face criminal charges. By comparison, the standard consumer-grade pocket/purse-size “personal defense” pepper spray is roughly 20 percent of the strength of the variant that Pike employed, the MK-9 .7% Orange Band, which has a “cone” delivery system. Defense Technology describes their Orange Band product as “significantly more intense than previous formulations.”
Note: From what I read at the product site, both MK-4 and MK-9 come in the same range of strengths, including .7%. Assuming the strength of MK-4 the university had authorized for its police force identical to the MK-9 actually used, the difference between the MK-4 and MK-9 products appears to involve pressurization and canister size, not OC concentration, Scoville ratings, or other measures of capsaicin intensity. The significant distinction between them is this: minimum recommended distance for MK-4 is 3 feet, while minimum recommended distance for MK-9 is 6 feet, because the latter is under higher pressure. Hence the importance of training or the lack thereof ― or simple failure to read the instructions.
(Not incidentally, MK-9 is made by Defense Technology, commonly referred to as Def-Tec, a wholly owned subsidiary of BAE Systems, a deeply corrupt British conglomerate.)
Craven, mendacious UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi eventually asked prosecutors to look into possible criminal charges against the police officers involved in the pepper-spraying. But, despite all the blatant illegalities on the law-enforcement end, the Yolo County District Attorney’s office determined there was insufficient evidence on which to bring a case. (As Richard Nixon would say, if the police do it, it’s not illegal.)
The task force found that the pepper spray used was unauthorized at UC Davis under UCDPD General Order No. 559, which “provides that pepper spray can be used, but specifically refers to the MK-4 [a smaller canister].” The task force added, “Furthermore, the investigation found no evidence that any UCDPD officer had been trained in the use of the larger MK-9.” Kroll supported their judgment that use of pepper spray was not reasonable use of force by stating, “This conclusion is buttressed by the facts that the MK-9 was not an authorized weapon under UCDPD guidelines and that UCDPD officers were not trained in its use.”
Thus, when the Kroll/Reynoso Report concludes that “Lt. Pike bears primary responsibility for the objectively unreasonable decision to use pepper spray on the students sitting in a line and for the manner in which the pepper spray was used,” it bases that conclusion on the visual evidence provided by citizen journalists. Those who doubt that photography makes anything happen have got some explaining to do.
Ho ho ho.
For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.
This post supported by a donation from the Estate of Lyle Bongé.