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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My Thoughts on the UC Davis Pepper Spraying Incident

Here's my thoughts on the UC Davis pepper spraying incident:

I have trouble finding a whole lot of sympathy for the protestors for a few reasons, not because I don’t feel bad for them being pepper sprayed. I feel bad they had to suffer pain and humiliation at the hands of the police via pepper spray and detention, yet it must be remembered that the protestors choose their consequence, using their agency, knowing full well what would happen if they did not comply with the at first non-forceful dispersal requests of the police. I say this for 3 specific reasons:

1.) There is a difference between non-violent legal protests and non-violent illegal protests, namely one is legal, having obtained permits to do so, and one is illegal, bypassing the obtaining of permits to protest on either private or public land. These individuals, from all accounts, did not obtain permits to occupy UC Davis, and especially did not obtain permits to occupy this sidewalk. As such, regardless of whether a protest is peaceful or not, it all depends on whether it is legal. I have no problem with civil disobedience when, as Locke explained, the government uses force to execute laws that it has no right to execute. And I see nothing wrong with civil disobedience when all other lawful means of redress have been exhausted or denied. But these students appear to have violated this important process of redress of grievances. They bypassed from the get-go, the first step of obtaining a lawful permit to protest on UC Davis, and particularly on this walkway, blocking it to all pedestrian traffic, and went straight for civil disobedience. If these students had applied for a lawful permit to protest, and had been denied this permit for illegitimate reasons, solely because the city didn’t want them to express their 1st Amendment rights, then occupying, and had been denied repeatedly, as well as denied help from other government officials in obtaining this permit, then civil disobedience would be in order for these students to express their 1st Amendment rights. Or, if these students had been granted the lawful permit to protest at UC Davis, including on the sidewalk, and had been asked by the police to vacant the sidewalk in direct disagreement with the permit granted, then the protesters have the right to civil disobedience and not move. But neither of these scenarios was the case. They did not seek, and thus did not obtain the lawful permit to protest, and thus they must adhere to the lawful requests of the police to disperse and cease from areas of pedestrian traffic. But they didn’t, obviously.

2.) A sidewalk is an area designed for pedestrian traffic, as a road is designed for vehicular traffic. Just as one may receive a ticket for purposefully blocking vehicular traffic on a road, one may receive a ticket for purposefully blocking pedestrian traffic on a sidewalk. For example, if one parks in someone’s driveway, and blocks the sidewalk, they are typically in violation of a city ordinance, and either can be asked to move their vehicle or receive a ticket or citation of some kind. For the sidewalks are meant for pedestrian traffic, especially those who may be handicap in some way and need the sidewalk, like a blind person, or a person in a wheel chair. If a car or even people are blocking their way on the sidewalk, then it’s not like they can just easily pass around them on street or in the case of UC Davis, on the grass. This could be done, of course, but not so easily for a blind person, someone with crutches, or someone in a wheel chair. A permit may be obtained for purposefully blocking a road or sidewalk for protestation of grievances, and blocking vehicular or pedestrian traffic in this manner would be perfectly legal. But, the UC Davis protesters did not seek to obtain, nor did they obtain such a permit to block the sidewalk, and therefore, when they refused to disperse and stop blocking the sidewalk, the police were justified in forcibly removing them, for the protesters ignored a lawful dispersal order.

3.) There is no difference between peacefully violating the law in unjustified situations and violently violating the law in unjustified situations, other than one reeks of physical violence while the other remains relatively passive in physical exertions by the protesters. But both are unjustified and violate the law, which in a way could not necessarily be called passive or peaceful. Resisting officers of the law in their attempts to clear public places of traffic or other public areas that are occupied illegally by protesters, either in their verbal attempts or in their physical attempts to pull the protesters away, is difficult to label as peaceful or passive protest. How can one peacefully or passively yet unjustifiably violate legitimate laws? And can be screaming slogans and pre-written, often cliché chants at the police after unjustifiably disobeying the their lawful dispersal orders be called passive and peaceful? Perhaps physically, but what about mentally? Police are human too, and humans often react in stressful situations in sometimes unpredictable ways, and if there are screaming people disobeying your lawful orders, tempers can boil, as is natural to expect, and it is natural to expect something to result from such a situation, be it from the police’s end or the protester’s end, or perhaps both, and this time it resulted from the police. Was the police spraying pepper spray “excessive force?” Well, perhaps to some, or perhaps not to others, but before we make such judgments, we must make sure we have as many of the facts on our side as possible. We don’t know exactly how many times the police tried to get the illegal protesters to disperse, particularly from the sidewalk, and how many times they tried to do so without force and using tame means of doing so. But it seems from the video that they had been warned at least once to move. Using pepper spray from the get-go in such a situation would be uncalled for and excessive force, to be sure, but if all other means had been exhausted by the police, and pepper-spray was the next most humane step in getting the illegal protesters to disperse, then they are justified in doing so, and the protesters receive their reward for disobeying a lawful order to disperse from the police during an illegal protest, unjustified by the fact that the protesters bypassed attempting to seek a permit so as to protest legally.

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