Police brutality hits the spotlight, again

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When the late Gil Scott-Heron said that "the revolution would not be televised," he spoke too soon. There was no way that the performance poet could conceive of the era of the viral video or know that it was just around the corner.

Even Mr. Scott-Heron couldn't have predicted that every citizen would one day have the option of recording and disseminating a piece of the revolution with a cell phone camera. Who would have imagined back in the 1970s that a generation later, we would all be media gatekeepers by virtue of living in the modern world?

Last Friday, a cop at the University of California, Davis forgot the cardinal rule every officer should have internalized since the Rodney King debacle -- if there's a camera around, then police brutality will be televised. There are too many witnesses and too many cameras in the environment to ever give another officer the benefit of the doubt when it comes to violence on civilians. We know from painful experience that there are too many liars wearing badges to pretend otherwise.

When UC Davis students set up tents in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street movements nationwide, the university's insular leadership freaked out. College students haven't seriously clamored for freedom of speech in decades. Who can blame the school's ruling class for being a little foggy on the concept?

On Friday, someone who will probably be fired by the end of this week gave the order to campus cops who deal with these students every day to put aside their humanity and act like storm troopers.

Police wearing riot helmets and carrying truncheons went from enforcing arbitrary parking rules and breaking up rowdy keg parties to assaulting the students who pay their salaries.

By now, most people who are inclined to pay attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement have seen the infamous footage of the UC Davis cop who casually shot streams of pepper spray into the faces of students peacefully resisting orders to disperse.

The unidentified cop, who has since been suspended with pay along with another of his colleagues, is seen shaking the canister ritualistically before dousing the nonviolent students in a reddish chemical spray. He is performing for his fellow officers, but he is blind to the dozens of cameras recording his every move.

Within seconds, the students who had been sitting with arms linked were screaming and sobbing. They broke formation to protect their contaminated eyes. That's when the campus police moved in to make arrests and exacerbate an already appalling situation.

The students who had gathered around to witness the confrontation were firmly on the side of their fellow students. "Shame on you," they shouted in unison. Some protesters had to be treated at hospitals.

Because it is rare to see such breathtaking acts of sadism under color of authority, the reaction to the crackdown at UC Davis has been quick and visceral. Outraged alumni have threatened to withhold donations to punish Linda Katehi, the university's chancellor, under whose watch the violence took place.

In addition to suspending the two cops, Ms. Katehi has put Annette Spicuzza, the school's tone-deaf police chief, on administrative leave. Ms. Katehi announced that the university will conduct an internal probe into the events surrounding the officers' actions.

Much has been said about the militarization of the police in this country and how the "war on drugs" mentality has trickled down into society and college policing.

It also doesn't help that the Bush administration considered torture and sadism legitimate tools of coercion and social control. The cops at the bottom always take their cues from the cops at the top. When administration and military officials are amoral, then it is too much to expect men and women many levels below their pay grade to respect the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.

The police claim that they're not choosing sides in the dispute but are simply enforcing the law. Former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu had a great response to such moral evasiveness: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

The clouds of pepper spray at UC Davis attest to which side those cops are on.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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