By Sean Carroll | November 19, 2011 6:36 pm

You’ve probably heard that protestors at Occupy UC Davis were pepper-sprayed by police during a non-violent protest. (It’s very likely that you have heard but it hasn’t registered, as there have been many similar events nationwide and it’s hard to keep track.)

After the incident, UC Davis police chief, Annette Spicuzza, had this to say:

“There was no way out of that circle. They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.”

Imagine in your mind the kind of “volatile situation” to which this description might apply. Now here’s the picture:

Having never been pepper-sprayed, I have no idea what it’s like, although it doesn’t seem pleasant. But these protestors can take some solace in the idea that this kind of display will bring more support to their movement than a million chanted slogans. The police were obviously badly trained, but the ultimate responsibility lies with UC Davis Chancellor Linda Kaheti, who ordered them in. It’s a horrifying demonstration of what happens when authority is unchecked and out of touch. I’m not sure where the propensity of local authorities to call in police dressed like Storm Troopers started, but it has to end. This isn’t what our country is supposed to be about.

Here’s the video:

Update: On the question of since when are all protests met with police in riot gear freely dispensing pepper spray, Alexis Madrigal has researched the answer, which is: since the 1999 WTO/anti-globalization protests. Apparently police training is not flexible enough to accommodate the fact that different situations call for different responses.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, News, Politics
  • Brian

    Of course, the police were OUTSIDE of the circle, and at the very beginning of the video you can clearly see the officer who sprays the protesters step OVER the protesters from inside the circle to out, without any difficulty or resistance from the protesters.

    Spicuzza’s excuse stinks.

  • Jim

    Perhaps John Conway would care to comment, seeing as he’s a professor there?

  • Mark Erickson
  • Alan

    The entire point of the demonstration was to be pepper sprayed, or to provoke some other kind of newsworthy attack. They succeeded, and gained much publicity. In situations where there was no pepper spraying or active opposition to the demonstrators, their violence escalated, until there was no choice by the authorities but to act.
    I have no sympathy for the demonstrators. Their actions in general have been like the incoherent whining of spoiled brats. Without a clear purpose and a leadership that understands how to effect political change, all they have accomplished so far is to inconvenience people who are trying to go about their lives.

  • Matt H.

    If they were protesting SOPA, at least they were doing something worthwhile.

  • Mark Erickson

    Whoops, earlier link didn’t show up before I posted this.

  • Jennifer

    Excellent, thanks for posting, Sean. My fellow grad student in the physics department who was there, as well as all eyewitnesses, say that all protestors were peaceful. Our methodology is nonviolent action, as in the video, sitting still and quietly to protest. I’ve just come back from Chancellor Katehi’s newsconference, there were a few hundred of us there I think, again quiet, seated, nonviolent, expressing our concern over yesterday’s events in the best way we know how. To her credit this time, she did not call in the police on us. She stayed inside the campus building for about 3 hours, from 4-7 p.m., and finally emerged to all of us seated and quietly watching her walk to her car.

    I still cannot believe she called in police yesterday and allowed them to pepper spray seated students.

    The only thing that made me angry about tonight’s action was a blonde woman who accompanied the chancellor in her “walk of shame” as we called it. The blonde woman spoke to all of us after the chancellor had gotten in her car. She said “this campus is broken!” and then spoke of time to heal.

    I feel like our campus is the opposite of broken. It works. We are holding to our ideals, no one got violent with police when they got violent with us. And today, as soon as someone saw her go into the building, there were texts and tweets and facebook messages and we all gathered there. They turned the lights off in the building at one point, perhaps hoping we would go away? But we didn’t. I just feel that she made a mistake in calling the police on students, and we are expressing our disgust with that action with solidarity and dignity. I’d say the campus is working almost perfectly. The administration has made mistakes, but they are not the campus.

  • Jack

    In a civilized society passive protestors should not be sprayed in the face with chemical irritant for practicing their constitutional rights. You may not agree with their message, but you should agree that they have to the right to say it. In the Davis case the protestors had been camped out for exactly 1 night before the police arrived. This is not a case where a sustained encampment degenerated into filth or otherwise dangerous or unsafe conditions.

    The incoherence of the occupy movement comes from the variety of people participating, though there is a common theme threaded throughout the incoherence, that of a rising inequality due to crony capitalism practiced by the finance industry combined with the complacency of the government. A quote I recently read tells the story “If only they enforced bank regulations like they do park rules, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” If you really don’t get it watch 60 minutes, read nakedcapitalism, and watch Inside Job.

    On the sustained protests in Tahir Square Obama said “I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” The sentiment in this speech seems to have been lost on our own police forces and city governments.

  • Phil

    Don’t worry, everyone, Sean can be trusted. He’s definitely NOT part of the 1%. He’s in physics.

  • Tony

    What truly worries me, is that when non-violent protesters are peppers sprayed, eventually they will turn to violence. This will get out of hand, and when it is over no one is going to be left innocent.

  • B

    This was idiotic and dangerous behavior on the part of the officers. If indeed they did feel trapped, indiscriminate violence against seated protesters only risks escalation and violence against the officers. This could have sparked a mob. To their credit the protesters didn’t attack. Although at that point the officer deserved it.

    Ultimately blame does fall on the Chancellor. Either she tacitly supports this violence, which is borderline criminal. Or she’s too incompetent to field a police force that can safely disperse a crowd.

    College-aged adults have been staging unsafe and immature protests for decades. Those kids are obnoxious and intentionally inconveniencing the campus community by blocking a sidewalk. But that’s predictable behavior by dumb kids. And it’s the Chancellor’s job to see that the campus is safe regardless of the idiocy of its student body.

  • Jim Harrison

    UC chancellors are moving in on making half a million a year. It’s hardly a wonder that they are hostile to the 99%.

    Seriously, what possible excuse can there be for making millionaires out of a bunch of bureaucrat paper pushers at a time when every year sees another increase in the cost of tuition?

    Kaheti needs to be driven out for her greed as well as her propensity for sponsoring the torture of students.

  • John Conway

    The faculty, I can tell you, are PISSED.

    Katehi (our chancellor) should resign immediately. This cannot stand.

  • Carl Brannen

    For the general public, the view on these sorts of things is that unlawful riots are an indication that the police are unable to enforce the lawful orders of authority. The obvious solution is to make authority stronger. This is why riots generally influence US voters to swing towards the right. Let me try and explain how this happens.

    Middle-class America tells its children to obey the police. “If the police tell you to leave, you should leave. If you refuse to leave then the police will arrest you and put you on trial. The police do not pepper spray you by mistake or because they’re badly trained. They’re making your experience unpleasant so you don’t do it again. If this isn’t enough to teach you then the police have stronger techniques available.”

    It’s possible to live in the US and be unaware of the political inclinations of the majority of the population. One does this by living in tiny enclaves of like-minded people. To open up your eyes, try googling waterboarding+poll+rasmussen to see how the US public thinks.

  • Andrew

    I have been pepper sprayed and I can confirm for you that it is extremely unpleasant. Your eyes begin to tear up uncontrollably and you start coughing, but it’s a really messy cough. I don’t know if it irritates your salivary glands but it seems like your mouth just fills up with saliva and combined with the coughing it turns into a giant mess.

    It is truly awful, and those kids of the video looks amazingly composed as it happens.

  • Jim

    Thank You for posting this, Sean.

    Open Letter calling for Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi to resign
    Nathan Brown
    Assistant Professor
    Department of English
    Program in Critical Theory
    University of California at Davis

  • Jennifer

    John, happy to see your comment, I saw another physics professor at today’s gathering, I was sure the faculty was with the students.

    Anyone who would like to sign the petition for our chancellor to resign for calling in the police, here it is:

  • Bob

    Police thugs have been increasing their violence against peaceful, unarmed protesters exercising their First Amendment rights. The same day as this incident, the NYPD violated a court order allowing protesters back into the park. When a 5′ tall woman showed them the court order, a cop responded by punching her in the face. (It’s on YouTube.) Maybe it made him feel like a he-man, I don’t know. I do know there’s little chance he will ever be held accountable for his crime. Cops rarely are.

    It doesn’t matter if one agrees with the content of a protest or not; the Constitution is there for everyone, not just for one point of view. In fact, the more controversial the POV, the more it needs protecting. Popular speech doesn’t need protection.

    What’s great about this video is how the students ejected the police thugs — who had their fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons, as they’re trained to do — without putting a finger on them.

  • Democracy now!

    A non-democratic system can only be supported by non-democratic methods. That’s way chancellors order such a stupid things

  • Pieter Kok

    It seems to me that it’s not only Kaheti that should resign, but the police chief as well. He (or she) is ultimately responsible for the actions of police officers. In addition, there probably should be criminal charges leveled against the officers that did the spraying.

    I’m not holding my breath, though. Kaheti’s position is probably untenable, but I doubt the police will learn anything from this for the simple reason that the majority of the general public doesn’t care unless it’s all over the news for a sustained period of time.

  • anoNY

    “Having never been pepper-sprayed, I have no idea what it’s like”

    If it’s anything like CS gas, if you are in the cloud long enough you just want to die. I got hit with that stuff many times in basic training, you just hit the ground and hope for death…

  • Nick

    Obviously Linda P.B. Katehi has to take some blame, but if she told the police to jump off a cliff, would they? (ok ok, its America, they probably would) What kind of police are they to be taking orders from her? She’s just the head of a school! Do the police not operate autonomously, and make their own decisions, or do they like being pawns. They look like overweight, incompetent buffoons hiding behind their guns, it would be laughable if it wasn’t so sickening.
    What happens next? As if my respect for America wasn’t at a rock bottom level already, those Police need to be brought to justice, or are the Police above the law in America.

    America! Get your act together, you are badly affecting the rest of the world economically and socially. It’s unbelievable how many people you have, who believe in imaginary sky gods and talking snakes in positions of power. The lack of education and knowledge from the top down is really scary, just look at your Republican nominees.

    Lots of things need to change in the US and around the world, be a country with a conscience, empathy and restraint – not greed, hate and ignorance – and only then will things improve. Good Luck.

  • David Brown
  • blue morpho

    Hey Alan,

    The purpose of a demonstration is to demonstrate. It is not to be beaten or pepper sprayed otherwise there would be very few volunteers willing to demonstrate, believe me.
    Now from what I understand the USA is a democracy and in democracies citizens are allowed to say what they think and pacifically disagree with any policy or occurrence, it is a right. This looks like repression in a third world country… I know it well: I was born in one and presently living in one.
    You should be shocked, outraged and a little scared instead friend…

  • Matt

    @Alan, commenter #4:

    ” In situations where there was no pepper spraying or active opposition to the demonstrators, their violence escalated, until there was no choice by the authorities but to act.”

    In what alternative reality are you living?? Please educate me. During which campus protest have demonstrators escalated to the point of violence?

    • Sean

      I’ve updated the post to include some history of police responses to protesting.

  • crf

    It was 1997 APEC summit in Vancouver that saw one of the first large public controversies over police pepper spraying protesters.

  • Gizelle Janine

    Jesus fucking Christ. The republicans must be pissed….

  • Johan

    Respect to the protestors. They remained calm and refrained from giving these Neanderthals any justification for their actions. I am most appalled by the policeman holding up the pepper spray triumphantly before starting his aggressive act. In any civilized country the responsible people would be forced to resign.

  • Pieter Kok

    To Nick and others who see this as an indictment of American democracy, it happens here in the UK as well.

  • RA

    The police acted like fascist thugs because: 1) this is what they were supposed to do–i. e. the Chancellor’s instructions were to clear the area with all means necessary or 2) the Chancellor cannot control the police and they acted the way they did because many police seem to think they are postmodern warriors and acting though makes them look cool

    Either way, the Chancellor bears the ultimate responsibility and should resign NOW!

  • Sili


    The entire point of the demonstration was to be pepper sprayed, or to provoke some other kind of newsworthy attack. They succeeded, and gained much publicity.

    So you agree that the police should not have peppersprayed the protesters, right? After all, you are arguing that the authorities played right in to the riff-raff’s hands this way?


    If one fears/suspects that one might be peppersprayed, what sorta precautions can one take? Will say yoghurt help ease the burning as it does for Indian food?

  • Jasso

    According to all the hubbub on twitter (#OccupyDavis), two of the officers have been placed on administrative leave.

  • Bill

    The response of authorities at many of these Occupy demonstrations have way overstepped the bounds of common sense. But in this era of increasing paramilitarization of local police forces, I am not surprised. It seems to be the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large. In this particular case, the Campus Police show up in SWAT/riot gear — a recipe for disaster. Donning such a uniform (flack jackets, black uniforms, helmets, face shields) all add a layer of anonymity that somehow short circuits moral brain function. This in no way excuses the behavior of individuals who must bear responsibility for their actions, but I think that the bureaucrats and politicians, in this case the California government and the UC system, need to critically examine their protocols and regulations to ask the question of how did they contribute to the situation. I am sure there are regulations that govern peaceful protests on the campus and other regulations of how to deal with them.

    No doubt there was a desire to “nip things in the bud” before an encampment developed. I am reminded of an anti-apartheid tent village on the green at Dartmouth in the mid-80s. As it grew, the administration was helpless to do anything about it. It came to an end when the cold weather came and some right wing students decided to torch it one night. Luckily, no one was camping out that night and there were no injuries. Cities are now under pressure from the White House to deal with these protests, and many liberal officials are making really stupid decisions. Fines, citations, and other non-violent methods need to be considered and tried before any physically coercive methods are employed. The latter being a very, very distant last option.

  • http://Discover Bonnie

    The behavior by the police is just WRONG! This is America! I thought we were the land of free speech and the right to assemble. I’m appalled but unfortunately not shocked. Do I agree with the protestors position or even know what they were protesting? Not necessarily, but I support their right to protest. There was no immediate public safety hazard or impediment to traffic flow. Therefore the police had no cause for their abusive reaction.

  • Mason

    > The entire point of the demonstration was to be pepper sprayed, or to provoke some other kind of newsworthy attack. They succeeded, and gained much publicity.

    That is the point, don’t you see? The students are showing you that you literally have to do nothing but sit there quietly, and that is a crime worthy of chemical attack. It’s called martyrdom, and it works precisely because it requires so little to get an overwhelmingly hostile response. Are you truly free in a country where you cannot expect to sit peacefully without being attacked? Our founding fathers would not see this as their America. This is exactly the brutality that we went to war over to start this country.

  • Cody

    For years my dad has told me a few brief memories of protests he saw while he was in college (Michigan State). In one he recalls seeing protestors fill a street and assuming it was celebration of a football event, until he saw someone with what he described as a beautiful gas mask, in a nice case—that’s when he realized it was a war protest. So I think if pepper spray had been expected or desired you might reasonably expect one among the large crowd would come prepared.

    Also, it’s scary to see the police escalate this, though after reading The Truth about Violence, (a scary post about self defense & crime by Sam Harris) I can almost see where the cops are coming from, having to deal with crime all day, I would be surprised if they were clear and level headed after constantly placing their mind in worst-case-scenario-mode. That said, I still think their actions were inexcusably inappropriate/unnecessary. I don’t think the definition of assault should differ between a police officer and a citizen unless the citizen is violating a law and it’s a last resort, measured, etc..

    What is most concerning is that it is hard to think this isn’t going to get a lot worse, given the bleak outlook of economic and political improvement for most likely years to come, and more especially the job market. Back in the spring I mentioned to a friend the unbelievable wealth inequality, and he said, whenever societies get too unequal, one of two things happens; a) laws are passed to help even it out again, or b) heads get chopped off. I’d like to think as a civilization we’ve matured past such behavior but people seem to be bent on destroying my naive faith in our species.

  • Neal J. King

    It’s very important that these activities remain non-violent – at least on the protesters’ side. And not too confrontational.

    I remember the free-speech movement in Berkeley, although I was a bit too young to participate. I remember that the turmoil created the overall feeling among the general public that “this has got to stop.” So when the governor of California put down the protests with a firm hand, it gave him a big boost in public standing, and led the way to his being a viable candidate for national office.

    And that is how we got Ronald Reagan as President of the US. And things have been just rosy, ever since …

    Beware the law of unintended consequences!

  • Flagitious Nebulon

    John Conway says: “The faculty, I can tell you, are PISSED.”

    Really? You have telepathic powers? You don´t think that there might be a substantial number of faculty who think that the protesters are a bunch of assholes who deserve no sympathy, but who prefer to keep their opinions to themselves?

  • anonymous 99%er

    @Flagitious Nebulon:

    Telepathic powers? Really? You don’t think that John Conway, being a Professor there might, oh, I don’t know, have actually _talked_ to a number of faculty members and be basing his statement on fact? Of course, if you’d rather convince yourself that your opinion is shared by a large but silent majority, be my guest.

  • Peter Beattie

    » Alexis Madrigal:
    And while the kids may cough up blood and writhe in pain, what happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.

    Yes, it’s really terrible what must have happened to the poor guy that almost forced him, in a situation where he was under no duress, let alone in any danger, to violently assault people sitting on the ground doing nothing. He wasn’t even told to do it, let alone by somebody with authority over him. So this is not remotely comparable even to the SPE or Milgram’s studies. Somebody who is as incapable of independent thought and of proper consideration of the constitutional rights of the citizens he has sworn to protect has no business being a police lieutenant.

  • Smith Powell

    One of the major lessons to be learned from the OWS movement is that the police have new technical toys that they will use. They have become a paramilitary force. They are more concerned with using their toys and practicing their crowd control techniques than they are in protecting and serving the public and the public’s exercise of their First Amendment rights.

  • Anchor

    It’s like they are spraying at bugs or vermin and they are enjoying it. This isn’t “crowd control”. This is a judgement and conviction without due process, right in front of our eyes.

    Hey, Flagitious? Do those politely silent faculty think “the protesters are a bunch of assholes who deserve no sympathy” before or after they’ve been pepper-sprayed by those who have already decided for them? Guess who the assholes and COWARDS are?

  • Eccentric & Anomalous

    “I’m not sure where the propensity of local authorities to call in police dressed like Storm Troopers started, but it has to end. This isn’t what our country is supposed to be about.”

    I agree, 100% with you, but unfortunately this is what this country is evolving towards more and more.

  • David Grinspoon

    The OWS movement started as a semi-spontaneous reaction to growing inequality, out-of-control profiteering by the financial industry and government corruption. But it has now exposed a horrible de-evolution of our police forces into anti-democratic paramilitary units post-9/11, post Seattle and especially owing to the “war on drugs” which has given them lots of new, dangerous toys even while helping to erode our liberties.

  • Subir

    Oh! I thought that such things (police brutality) happen only in third world countries. It happens in the developed world also!! It’s a pity.

  • Tom W

    I find it interesting that the first post about the occupy wall street movement on this blog has to do with this incident. Interesting that you didn’t mention this one:

    According to Oakland Tribune, “Occupy Oakland” has devolved into something resembling “Lord of the Flies,” after the classic novel and movie in which a group of British school children are stranded on a desert island and proceed to turn on one another. In this case a group described as “bullies, the mentally ill, drunks, thugs and anarchists” have turned the encampment into something resembling a state of nature, where the strong terrorize the weak, and where ad hoc rule making has caused a combination of anarchy and oppression.

    Or this one:

    At “Occupy Baltimore” rape victims are being urged to not report their attackers to the police, but rather to a “security committee” that will investigate the incident and, if necessary, provide “counseling” to the perpetrator. Speaking of rapes, one is reported to have occurred at “Occupy Cleveland” when a 19-year-old student was ordered to share a tent with a man named “Leland” who then, it is alleged, sexually assaulted her. The matter was not reported to law enforcement until two days later when the girl related the incident to a professor.

    Or perhaps this one:

    A participant of “Occupy Seattle” has been arrested for exposing himself to young children at least five times. In one instance, he approached a pair of 13-year-olds playing at a public park and “performed a lewd act.”

    I remember reading a commentary written at the start of this OWS movement, which said something to the effect that what the protesters were looking for was a ‘Kent State’ moment, where police brutality was so disproportionate as to be absurd. Is this it?

    Pity that such a ‘non-violent’ movement had to cause so many assaults, rapes, and other unspeakable crimes before coming to a moment its supporters could latch on to.

  • Chris

    The way he was spraying them reminded me of the way you spray bugs. That is not the way you treat people, especially those who are just sitting there.

  • MainStreamMedia

    I know this makes great entertainment, but what does this have to do with Physics?

  • AJS

    @Tom W #47

    Way to obfuscate! A quick search of the Oakland Tribune’s website will show readers that the article you quote-mined:

    1. Is over a month old.
    2. Includes a quote *from a police officer* relating the “Lord of the Flies” comment, reported as his (anonymous) opinion and not as fact, or the statement of the Tribune.
    3. Notes that the camp’s more peaceful residents are the ones suffering from the actions of your noted bullies and thugs. In fact, the majority of the article describes the actions of a *single* disruptive man, not of groups of violent people turning the encampment into a “state of nature”: “The tumult around security centered on the man who throttled Hughes on Monday morning.”
    4. The most current news from the Tribune on Occupy Oakland notes that all Occupy camps had been cleared out as of 11/21 (“Police quickly and peacefully cleared a Snow Park encampment at 19th and Harrison streets near Lake Merritt early Monday, which left Oakland without an Occupy encampment for the first time since Oct. 26”), with a new camp begun on the site of a foreclosed home on 11/22. So far, no reports of unrest or violence or pig’s heads on pikes . . .

    I’m guessing the other claims in your post are equally distorted and mined for convenient bits of sensationalism and authority opinion that aren’t actually reported fact, so I’ll let others Google those if they’re inclined. I’m sure there are instances of terrible behavior at some Occupy locations, but that’s hardly surprising, people being people and some being attracted to large boisterous groups in order to display their personal brand of sociopathy. That hardly means such folks are emblematic of the movement. (Having actually seen the Occupy Oakland and San Francisco camps on my commute, I can verify that they did not resemble, to me, any scene from “Lord of the Flies”, even if they could seem a little chaotic.)

  • who

    it would be nice to talk with someone who was there, because there are quite a few things that seem off which all the footage that I have seen. Pepper spray and tear gas is horrible. It burns, stings, makes your lungs feel like they are getting singed by fire. Maybe what they used was something different and more mild, but I was surprised to not see more of a reaction by those directly sprayed.

    there must have been more footage or something, because the protesters appear extremely peaceful and look like they are only blocking a pathway in a park. What kind of police force has a Sargeant that give orders to disperse or detain such a peaceful small crowd? Has anyone ever seen police carry gun-like weapons that look like paintball guns? that seemed weird.

    and I couldn’t make out exactly what dept. they were identified as because I couldn’t see and badge or patch clearly. It just seems strange because they weren’t prohibiting and business from taking place or shutting down a bridge or other important traffic route. They didn’t even appear to be camping there which some cities are using as excuses to disperse because of impact of the camp sites that have large numbers of occupiers.

    If all the Occupy protests and demonstrations are going to progress and be responsible for change, they will have to become organized. They will have to become vigilant as many industries would rather not see any change implemented and will likely try to sabotage the movement by any means they can including clever ways to discredit the movement and the people behind it.

    if that footage is accurate, it is a major blunder by that policing agency and people should be outraged,. But I have never heard of police who would do something so foolish. In this day and age people need to be skeptical of believing any audio and video footage, although in this case if it was staged it would entail a rather large crew of actors and actresses.

    we should be skeptical of believing without question all news. It can be a very effective way to have to control and gives an ability to manipulate the behavior and actions of city, state or country. And that control and manipulation can be at levels the public would never in a million years be able to fathom how much they are subconsciously controlled.

    because individuals these days are more connected and in contact than like never before, we as individuals have the power to spread information even faster than any media and more efficiently when organized (sometimes due to simple popularity of some sites and some people)

    if change is needed, it is more than achievable. If every person who was eligible to vote registered and cast their vote for the presidential election, there would be enough votes to possibly even elect an independent candidate.

    if people really want to light a fire in the political arena in order to have some serious change, show them that we can get the 30-40% of people who do not normally vote but are eligible, to this year get out and vote. If there was a strong enough sense of collective agreement that we could inform that 30-40 % and convince them to vote for a specific candidate, politicians who wouldn’t give you the time of day will scramble to cater to you and work to ensure your needs are met.

    change is needed, and it is probably time to begin to organize so that the needed change will be implemented.

  • Joe

    This is a slightly light-hearted look at pepper spray. Only if you know Rule 34.

  • Tintin

    I would have never imagined that the thought police was active on this board. Granted that my try at some dark humor might have not been hilarious (this is why I became a physicist instead of a stand-up comic), but it is rather, I would say, “eye opening” to see my comment deleted. By my remark about the pepper-sprayer in the picture being a Syrian student studying for his Ph.D. in Public Relation at UC Davis was in reference to the way President Bashar al-Assad treats his own people who disagree with his policies. Of course, al-Assad also uses live bullets, but if we wait a little longer, they most likely will also soon be used in this country.

  • Barry Tilles


    The disconnect between the casual manner of dispensing the spray and the intention of physical removal is what made for instant memeification (my personal neologism). Had actual brutality been employed, the scene would have been less transfixing.


    The action that preceded immediately was not so compelling for photoshoppers, but germane to the discussion:

    An officer goes down the line of sitters and informs each one individually “You understand if you stay here…you will be subject to the use of force….the pepper guns will be deployed.” (It is hard to hear through the yelling.)

    Anyway here are a few words I wrote about the reaction to the clearing of Zucotti Park. I hope they are worth repeating:

    The sanctimonious busybodies dominating the public spaces of the nations cities are as far from the free spirited intellectuals of the early ’60s left as an empty Jersey Shore style reality show is from the works of Shakespeare. At best, the “movement” is a childish irrational temper tantrum. That’s being kind. More harshly it is a cultish religion-like self-involved sour grapes group of disturbed malcontents veering toward creepy, Jim Jones style group psychosis. (Witness the bizarre “mic check” ritual call-and-response ritual.)
    Comments on the New York Times site range from the ridiculously hyperbolic: “The word has been sent by the one percent, turn loose the dogs of the police state”;”imperial state storm troopers”; to the downright demented: “The white gloved .01% [what happened to the rest of the 1%?] that has stolen our nation has ordered their jack booted servants to squelch the voice of equality” to the out-and-out threatening:”there will be bloodier days ahead”. Get a grip, people. America is, and always will be, the greatest nation on earth. Working yourselves up into a self righteous frenzy does not reflect well on any good points which can be made for leftist anti-capitalist ideology.

    And thank you Sean for the wonderful wonderful blog-site.

  • Neal J. King

    Barry Tilles (#54),

    “An officer goes down the line of sitters and informs each one individually “You understand if you stay here…you will be subject to the use of force….the pepper guns will be deployed.” (It is hard to hear through the yelling.)”

    The fact that the policeman informs each individual ahead of time that he is going to over-react to non-violent resistance does not justify his over-reaction. The pepper spray is still uncalled for.

  • Barry Tilles

    Hello Neal

    Fair enough point. You maintain that the police over-reacted. That is a subjective opinion and since no protester suffered wounds or had to be checked out at the hospital AFIK, one could argue back and forth regarding that. Back in my day (if you are a younger man cue the eye roll) the cops (Boston, Providence) would just come in and bash heads, which more would agree is disproportionate. Nobody I knew personally was beaten except for one guy: he announced prior to the demo that he desired a physical fight; when we rejoined he brandished his arm in a sling as if it were a purple heart, eyes proudly glistening. My point is nobody gets hurt unless they intend to become the martyr for their cause and these guys and girls were warned “force” would be used to eject them.

    The only over reaction I see is the over the top moralizing and calls for heads to roll and the complete Stanislavski holier-than-thou self-righteousness of the Occupiers and their “shame”-shouting friends. If these folks were any higher on their horse they’d need a ladder to climb down.

    If you go to a have a fight don’t act shocked when you get punched.

  • Charlie

    I am not sure whether “over-reaction” is subjective opinion or a legal argument.

    Either way, this is not the kind of world that I want to live in. I object. I’m glad to see the UC Davis Physics department object. The shame is not on the students. It’s on the cops (these particular ones) and the administration.

  • Barry Tilles

    Charlie, please man get a little bit of perspective. The wimpy UC Davis incident is not police brutality (police stupidity, maybe, yup – as I said in my 1st comment if the cops had been more hard-charging and not blasé as if doing some Sunday gardening less horror would have been evoked.) For example, do you want to see some tough action? Here is a clip from a street incident in So Korea involving riot police and ex-military:

    Most amazing to me is that the whole thing wound up with a handshake – here in the US that would be very rare as small events are magnified into endless grudges as if there is always the litigious opportunity, so never make up, it won’t look good in court.

    Also read the comment by a So. Korean guy:

    “In S.Korea the earliest bus is 5:20 am, and they’re off work at 1:am. We work desperately and still people don’t get jobs, while you Americans are from the richest nation where you can live without a problem only if you work hard. You don’t know what it’s like to be in real desperate situation, you lazy idiots. You really have no idea how people from other countries work so desperately. Always complaining but always obese. especially young ones, In AMERICA YOU ARE WORSE THAN WALLSTREET…. Riot Police are young Korean college students in their early 20s who serve the nation mandatory and those Protesters are NOT ORDINARY EX-MILITARY. They are EX-Anti NorthKorea agents from “HID” division, which does not exist anymore. They are real professionals that can take one’s life easy. AMERICANS are STUPID.You stupid people will never realize how much you people are granted with opportunity, lazy obese shits. If you work hard, you will never starve to death.”

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  • Neal J. King

    Barry Tilles,

    I’m not sure I’m getting your point:
    – In South Korea, the police attack the retired soldiers hammer & tongs, while the retired soldiers attack them with: burning propane, big metal pipes, etc.

    – At UC Davis, the police attack the students with pepper spray, while the students attack them by: sitting down, joining arms, and trying to cover their eyes with their jackets.

    – So the students are supposed to feel grateful?

    By the way: Some of the students were treated in hospital after the event. And there are people who have died in association with application of pepper spray. No, I don’t think it is merely my opinion that pepper spray applied to non-violent protesters is over-reaction. I hope this is a matter that will be proven in court.

    With regard to the comments from the South Korean man: Because South Korea is ready to treat their protestors like dogs, the US should also be ready to treat our protestors like dogs? Should we all join the “race to the bottom” with respect to civil liberties? I don’t think so.

  • Charlie

    Barry Tilles,

    I don’t get your point either. Are you saying that they 1) aren’t courageous? or 2) should follow a different strategy and meet violence with violence? or 3) have nothing to protest?

    #1 They are (I’m an ex-military guy myself so I’m supposed to have some authority on that point).
    #2 Violence seems to be what is most wanted by their opponents (e.g., just watch Fox News for 10 min.). Their non-violent restraint is commendable and is probably their best strategy to have any lasting effect.
    #3 It’s pretty safe to say that all of these students will be paying a higher percent of their income to the IRS than, say, Sean Hannety. Damn right they have something to protest.

  • Tintin

    Barry Tilles,

  • Barry Tilles

    Hello Mr. King,

    You make some powerful arguments. If I can extrapolate, you are gently reminding the reader that: 1) we are a nation of laws; 2) differences among parties should be resolved peaceably; 3) pepper spay is tough stuff and mustn’t be dispensed in such a callous manner; 4) Americans have a right to assemble, and non-violent civic resistance, including sit-ins, has a storied history.

    Fair enough.

    My point though was misconstrued. Our rights to protest are not unlimited. The leaders of the sit-in know that. As Wiki says its whole raison d’être is to be forcibly removed:

    “In a sit-in, protesters remain until they are evicted, usually by force, or arrested, or until their requests have been met. Sit-ins have historically been a highly successful form of protest because they cause disruption that draws attention to the protesters’ cause…. The forced removal of protesters, and sometimes the use of violence against them, often arouses sympathy from the public, increasing the chances of the demonstrators reaching their goal.”

    So, the Occupiers planned to be evicted and the bluecoats obliged. The police played right into their hands. Moreover, listen to the tape. The crowd was screaming and yelling, goading the cops, driving them nuts really. They’re human beings and campus cops are not known for being well trained like city lawmen. Whether or not you think the po-po’s went over the line, who stands to benefit now by litigation or further recrimination? Meet, agree that both sides got unzipped a little bit, shake hands like those crazy Koreans and move on. But no, these guys are just getting going: publish the officer’s name and address and urge people to “flood his home with pizza deliveries and junk mail. … Flood his skype [think he has a skype?]… Flood his phones, email and mailbox to voice your anger”; create an internet meme making him the worst dude to walk the UC campus since Charlie Manson; engage in outrageous hyperbole; fire a bunch of people; ruin some lives.

    I’m just asking for a bit of larger perspective and maybe hoping cooler heads prevail. I suppose it all depends on how one regards OWS politically. I am not sympathetic to them, and it shows.

  • Tintin

    I was trying to withdraw my comment (#62) but apparently the system does not let one just totally delete a whole post. So, since I was addressing Barry Tilles,, I left only his name to satisfy the system.

  • Neal J. King

    Barry Tilles,

    I do not approve of publishing the cop’s personal information or actions based on such information.

    However, I think his own actions prove that he has the wrong temperament to be a policeman in our society: Someone with that kind of proven sadistic streak should not be a cop. Better that his career in law enforcement be discouraged now than that he take his lack of judgment and self-control one step too far on another occasion.

    I am not necessarily 100% against the authorities: for example, I am not completely convinced that the chancellor should be held responsible for what I consider the over-the-top behavior of the cops, as I regard such behavior as unbelievable and unpredictable. I suppose that will come out in the wash.

  • Barry Tilles

    Hey Tintin,

    Re #64. I’m burning with curiosity now. Lemme have your worst. I can take it.

  • Martin

    Barry Tilles – I’m amazed how one can come up with any sort of defense for the police in this incident. There is simply no justification for pepper-spraying peacefully resisting students. It doesn’t matter what the students are protesting about, or what Wiki says. If it is some established rule somewhere, we need to change it.

    I do not agree that the protesters planned to be evicted. I think they just wanted to be heard.

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  • Barry Tilles

    Okay, back to this….
    Martin asked “how one can come up with any sort of defense for the police in this incident” or rather expressed astonishment that one can have an idea, opinion or belief that departs from his own. I guess I just like to retain my individuality. It is why I am here, writing to you, instead of maybe over at the Spectator blog or watching Fox news or some such, a little like a dog who sticks his head out of the car window no matter the speed or the temp. Of course I always try to keep the following in mind, and I recommend you all do, too:

    “People are “erroneously confident”‘ in their knowledge and underestimate the odds that their information or beliefs will be proved wrong. They tend to seek additional information in ways that confirm what they already believe.”

    Also, I try to keep a long view, and a cheerful optimistic one. Now, returning to the subject at hand.
    Here is the video again, of the pepper spray occasion, and its immediate aftermath:

    Naturally, it is edited to begin after the initial arrests and order to diperse, and after they go down the line of hard-core sitees and one by one inform each person that if he or she remains they will be subject to removal by force. As the correspondent states “The first minute has the main drama”.
    The only real drama. The heinous, brutal act. That does not mean the rest is uninteresting. A few police drag away their hapless victims as the crowd reaches a fever pitch of chanting in unison “Shame on you” with very little variation, with other policemen more or less standing around looking nervous, and fingering their weapons. I stopped watching at 6:28.

    I stopped because that is when the mic check thing started. There is something that really really bothers me about that . It gives me the creeps. The group call and response (really call and repeat) practice associated with OWS evokes both The Stepford Wives and a drugged out class of children at religious school. It is when the hive mind becomes totally insectile and the human beings that comprise the crowd drop all pretense to selfhood and give in totally to what is known as groupthink. Is anyone else bothered by this?

    Anyway Martin, you can ignore the encyclopedia, but why disregard your own eyes? That is your assertion “I do not agree that the protesters planned to be evicted”. At what point did they not plan? Look never mind we went over this before. The cops told ’em they were comin’ to get ’em and they got got. Get over it.

    Now, Charlie. You seem like a nice man and your heart is in the right place. Your military service is commendable too. I’m sure those kids were plenty scared and that took courage to sit there and take the heat. But in the process they become heroes to their fellows so there was an incentive for them. A courageous person doesn’t make more of something than what it was, though. They reconcile with the foe and move on. On points 2 and 3, you only seem to see one side, and stereotype the other. Yeah I’m a Fox-watchin’ hippie-hatin’ Rush-lovin’ God-fearin’ Snapple-drinkin’ good ol’ boy right? Or maybe some rich 1%er. Sorry I’m a Jewish atheist cab driver who used to be left and now is right and who loves to read about physics and argue politics over the ‘net. But I respect your opinion even though I think you would be happier if other people’s tax bills didn’t frost your nose so.

    Okay sorry for the rant and good night.

  • Martin

    I agree that mob mentality can sometimes have a chilling effect. The right response wasn’t to pepper spray the students though. Even if they were warned, as Neal (55) says.

    We’ll just have faith that whatever is right, true, and good will come through.

  • Ashamed

    I was inspired by the actions of the students witnessing this unbelievable act of repression (violence as a “measured” response to peaceful protest is always inappropriate). They responded in a peaceful but forceful way to the police’ violence. Their response was the most logical, appropriate and effective method imaginable. They spontaneously heaped collective shame on the the police for their absurd and disproportionate behavior, chanting “Shame on you!” until the police began to retreat, some of even looking confused by the crowd’s reaction.

    During the retreat, when police again threatened to use pepper spray, the crowd began to shout “You can go”. This simple statement of collective disgust removed any possible justification for a second violent action by the police. The students essentially treated them like the school yard bullies they were – they shamed them and sent them packing.

    IMHO, exactly these tactics should become an integral part of the protests sweeping the country. Every time a politician or public official blatantly acts against the interests of the people, they should be greeted everywhere they appear, with collective shouts of `shame on you!´ Shame is what they should feel for betraying their constituents, their public office, and the common good.

    This kind of public shaming is political dynamite. It not only creates bad press and great TV news segments, it holds officials accountable to a publicly shared moral and ethical code that can ultimately trump money in political campaigns. Shame is a powerful force for change in society that should not be underestimated. A broad sense of shame is what American business and politics need to experience because our most cherished principles are being shamelessly trampled by their greed and unprincipled pursuit of power.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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