So it turns out that the cop who pepper-sprayed the nonviolent protesters at UC Davis is an exemplary officer – a “hero” who once saved the life of a fellow officer. Clearly, there’s a discrepancy between the overzealous role he played on Friday afternoon and his normal routine. I think, however, that in order to understand why police in full riot gear will violently attack nonviolent protesters who pose no threat, you only have to drive 100 miles south to Stanford, California.
I’m referring to the Psychology 101 (and probably Police Academy 101) lesson about the Stanford Prison Experiment, where “normal” individuals were brought to a simulated prison and assigned roles of either prisoner or prison guard. It only took a day for the experiment to go awry: as the subjects began to internalize their roles, the prison guards began abusing the prisoners while the prisoners began to “act up” and feel powerless at the hands of the guards. The experiment deteriorated so rapidly that the planned 14 day experiment was cut off at 6 days – and even then, the lead investigator took a lot of heat from the academic community for allowing it to go on as long as it did.
With this experiment in mind, it should come as no surprise that police who are dressed for battle will battle. Armed with shields, helmets, batons, and “non-lethal” weapons, we have watched this scene play out time and time again. Protesters who could easily be subdued by a non-militarized police officer with two bare hands and a pair of handcuffs (I’ve seen it done on COPS before) are instead brutally taken down by the use of weapons, chemical agents, and flash grenades. Why is this? Because the riot police have been sent in to act out their roles with the props given to them.
Norm Stamper, who was chief of the Seattle Police during the WTO protests of 1999 that became known as the the “Battle in Seattle,” would know something about the dynamics between protesters and riot police. In a recent editorial in The Nation magazine, he wrote:
…Seattle might have served as a cautionary tale, but instead, US police forces have become increasingly militarized, and it’s showing in cities everywhere: the NYPD “white shirt” coating innocent people with pepper spray, the arrests of two student journalists at Occupy Atlanta, the declaration of public property as off-limits and the arrests of protesters for “trespassing.”
The paramilitary bureaucracy and the culture it engenders—a black-and-white world in which police unions serve above all to protect the brotherhood—is worse today than it was in the 1990s. Such agencies inevitably view protesters as the enemy. And young people, poor people and people of color will forever experience the institution as an abusive, militaristic force—not just during demonstrations but every day, in neighborhoods across the country.
This Us versus Them mentality is invariably the outcome of the police playing military dress-up. The real question is whether we will accept the continuation of this disruptive role-playing game that pits law enforcers against the values they are responsible for upholding.
It’s been reported that two of the police officers who were involved in the pepper-spraying incident have now been placed on paid administrative leave for their actions. I think we’re delusional if we think that suspending a couple officers for lack of personal discipline is going to prevent this episode from happening again.
It turns out that the cop has been a douche prior to this incident. According to a report by the Daily Mail:
…an alleged anti-gay slur by Pike also figured in a racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit a former police officer filed against the department, which ended in a $240,000 settlement in 2008.
Officer Calvin Chang’s 2003 discrimination complaint against the university’s police chief and the UC Board of Regents alleged he was systematically marginalized as the result of anti-gay and racist attitudes on the force, and he specifically claimed Pike described him using a profane anti-gay epithet.