29 November 2011


During the months since the Occupy Wall Street movement has morphed into the Occupy movement, we have repeatedly witnessed photographic and video coverage of police officers in many cities brutalizing peaceful protesters. The form of police violence which has received the most attention has been the use of pepper spray, aka Oleoresin Capsicum or OC spray. Setting aside for a moment the constitutional issues of free speech and civil rights, I want to devote this post to the use and abuse of this toxic substance, and its effects on the human body.

In her blog post About Pepper Spray in Scientific American, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum describes her search for a way to measure the intensity of pepper spray, during which she discovered the Scoville scale, devised a century ago. The scale assigned Scoville Units (SU) to various forms of peppers, depending on the intensity of capsaicin present. Capsaicin is an irritant to human tissue, even in low doses. To gain some perspective, consider the capsaicin concentrations in the following ~

~ bell pepper ~ 0 SU

~ pepperoncini ~ 100-500 SU

~ jalapeno ~ 2500-9000 SU

~ cayenne ~ 30,000-50,000 SU

~ civilian self-defense spray ~ 2-3,000,000 SU

~ police-grade spray ~ 5,300,000 SU

Blum continues ~ "capsaicin binds directly to proteins in the membranes of pain and heat sensing neurons .... any compound that can influence nerve function is, by definition, risky. Research tells us that pepper spray acts as a potent inflammatory agent. It amplifies allergic sensitivities, it irritates and damages eyes, membranes, bronchial airways, the stomach lining ~ basically what it touches. It works by causing pain ....

"The more worrisome effects have to do with inhalation~ and by some reports, California university police officers deliberately put OC spray down protestors' throats. Capsaicins inflame the airways, causing swelling and restriction."

Health and safety risks are not limited to the pepper component alone. "Depending on brand, an OC spray may contain water, alcohols, or organic solvents as liquid carriers; and nitrogen, carbon dioxide, or halogenated hydrocarbons (such as Freon, tetrachloroethylene, and methyl chloride) as propellants to discharge the canister contents. Inhalation of high doses of some of these chemicals can produce adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurological effects, including arrhythmias and sudden death."

These risks have long been known, and published not only in scientific journals but also in law enforcement journals. According to the Justice Department and the ACLU, pepper spray use has been suspected in dozens of deaths that occurred during police custody. ACLU attorneys have stated that "the use of pepper spray as a kind of chemical cattle prod on nonviolent demonstrators resisting arrest constitutes excessive force and violates the Constitution."

It is worth pointing out that many police officers in the U.S. use crowd control measures like tasers, pepper spray, tear gas, and physical force in a manner that is unrestrained and reckless, when compared to how the U.S. military uses such measures in hostile situations. Military use is carefully tactical, designed to direct the flow of people to areas where they can be passively controlled. Police use is punitive, and carries the high probability of injury.

A.V. Flox, another prolific blogger, recently weighed in on the controversy ~ "pepper spray is a riot-control agent, which is banned for use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is typically used only against violent attackers who are resisting physical arrest and constitute a serious threat of harm to others." In no instance during the Occupy demonstrations has that been the case. The movement is explicitly non-violent.

Robert Tsietsema expands the current absurd situation in Pepper Spray and the Weaponization of Food, in which he satirically suggests durian, cabernet sauvignon vinegar, okra slime, Taiwanese stinky tofu, and tabasco sauce as candidates for the escalation of food products as weapons by police.

More seriously, Rania Kalek warns that this is just the beginning ~ that "by arming police departments with military-grade equipment, domestic policing has come to resemble a combat operation with citizens as the enemy .... The barrier between military and civilian law enforcement was drawn long ago for good reason. Traditionally, the role of the civilian police force is to maintain the peace and safety of the community while upholding the Constitution. But that barrier has been broken down by decades of the relentless war on drugs, and more recently the war on terror. Today civilian law enforcement agencies have access to military-grade equipment designed for heavy combat, essentially blurring the line between soldier and police officer.

"When local police departments are armed with military-grade equipment, the soldier's mentality is not far behind .... The average patrol officer's belt holds a handgun, pepper spray canister, Taser, handcuffs, and baton or nightstick. Multiply that by several hundred, which is the minimum number of police officers deployed to raid a large Occupy encampment, and the amount of firepower is startling." Add to that arsenal the acquisition by police of military weaponry which includes (but is not limited to) M-14 sniper rifles and M-16 assault rifles, grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers, bulletproof helmets, night vision goggles, tanks, survellance towers, and the Shadowhawk drone aircraft. Where are we, as a nation, heading?

Perhaps the answer is found in the ubiquity of photoshopped images of UC-Davis police lieutenant John Pike, who casually walked along a line of kneeling Occupy demonstrators and pepper sprayed their faces at point-blank range, repeatedly. His image has gone viral online, and now appears to be pepper spraying everyone from the Mona Lisa to Christ, penguins to Norman Rockwell characters, and even (appropriately) the U.S. Constitution itself (see image above).

It is a truism that when citizens rise up to protest the actions of those in political or economic power, those in power too often respond by retaliatory, repressive measures which only exacerbate our discontent. In the U.S. it last happened during the antiwar movement of the 1960s-70s. It has happened many times in our more distant past ~ the draft riots during the Civil War come to mind. And it is happening again. Repression and the use of force are not the answer. Responsible dialogue is.

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