by Carol Denney
On Monday, September 12, the Berkeley City Council had an emergency meeting to allow the use of pepper spray on a crowd if the crowd includes “violent extremists.” By a 6-3 vote (with three dissenting votes from Cheryl Davila, Kate Harrison, and Kriss Worthington), Berkeley Chief of Police Andrew Greenwood managed to argue to a council majority that this use was somehow different than “crowd control.”
They have a point. A study presented to the Berkeley City Council way back in 1991 showed that pepper spray doesn’t control much of anything. People sprayed with pepper spray tended to fall loosely into three categories: those who have little or no reaction to pepper spray, those who are adversely affected, and those who get more violent after being sprayed.
Nonetheless, Chief Greenwood presented pepper spray as a magic compliance tool and most of the Berkeley City Council ate it up. Ben Shapiro, a conservative, would be speaking in two days on campus, and it was an emergency.
Councilmember Kate Harrison pointed out that the police already had pepper spray, a fact few others on the council seemed to know. She asked Police Chief Greenwood, “what’s inadequate about that small can?”
Chief Greenwood gave a convoluted answer and finally stumbled onto his point: the big can is more “targeted.” A fellow officer at the Chief’s table then stepped in to help, saying that’s how you “move the crowd,” pulling the curtain back on any pretense of discrete application.
He left out that pepper spray has the upside of allowing the police to punish “extremists” (as demonstrators were referred to throughout the Chief’s request) without the bother or expense of a trial. The council didn’t seem affected by this slip, but the horrified crowd overflowing the council chambers watched in disbelief as the council majority absorbed this explanation as sensible.
Pepper spray is by nature indiscriminate. It is called a spray because it is an aerosol, in other words “a substance enclosed under pressure and able to be released as a fine spray, typically by means of a propellant gas.” The wind conditions, the distance from the target, and the movement of a group all affect the dosage. If you’re aiming at a crowd, the crowd gets exposed to a chemical irritant implicated in at least 25 deaths in California alone. And then the obvious: pepper spray causes temporary blindness and panic in a crowd.
Approximately 19 percent of any given population have disabilities, and that one-in-five ratio may be higher in the city of Berkeley. No police officer can tell who has cardiac or pulmonary issues, and our city’s most recent encounter with police use of chemical irritants was the Black Lives Matter march in December of 2014 when the police saw a provocative flier from some other group before the march began and just lost their shit.
People with no connection to the march were dosed and beaten so badly they couldn’t have dispersed if they wanted to, due to their injuries, the darkness, and the chaos. The “frontlines” of the street confrontation moved all over town, sometimes trapping people trying to disperse between police lines.
A long line of perhaps a hundred people attended the emergency, or “special,” pepper spray meeting of the City Council, and they objected in one-minute bites of public comment, with four people supporting the proposal, one of whom was the Downtown Berkeley Association’s John Caner.
But the fix, or in this case the spray, was in. It was déjà vu. The Pepper Spray Times newspaper began 26 years ago to make comedy out of policymakers’ disinterest in even the earliest studies of oleoresin capsicum’s physiological effects, and apparently nothing has changed.
The Chief of Police, when asked by Councilmember Wengraf about physiological effects, stated that he “hasn’t heard a thing about health issues,” adding that “he would have heard about it.” Perhaps this is true; police departments tend to get a steady stream of unrealistic manufacturers’ claims about new, improved products, rather than reports on liability claims.
But Mayor Jesse Arreguin and City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley should have made sure the presentation was balanced and included relevant information if, in fact, the goal is public safety.
Andrea Pritchett of Copwatch made the important point that there was actually a lot of pepper spray on hand on August 27, at that point the most recent alt-right and counter-demonstration. Not only did Berkeley police have their own canisters on their belts, but mutual aid officers had large, fire extinguisher-sized canisters available, so that presumably if pepper spray were the answer to Berkeley’s problems they would have been solved.
Many speakers noted the one-sided nature of the impressive array of weaponry laid out before the council dais like presents around a Christmas tree, none of which seemed to belong to any of the alt-right groups; but rather all reflected symbols and colors of the groups in the counter-demonstration roles.
Pepper spray, like other chemical weapons, doesn’t just create special challenges for the approximately 19 percent of the population who already have disabilities, it creates neurological and cardiac changes in people who get dosed, and who might not realize until months or years later why their breathing, motor skills, or ability to tolerate chemical exposure has changed, long too late to get legal or medical assistance. But there’s never a political downside to beating up lefties or giving the police shiny new toys. That’s how Ronald Reagan got his teflon.
The people on the streets intent on stopping alt-right speakers from speaking — and, according to the Police Chief’s report and remarks, they are clearly the targets of this new pepper spray rule — will just put on another couple more layers of neoprene and keep on with their quest to make sure only speech that meets with their approval takes place in the world. Which means a parade of conservative provocateurs is coming to town to “test” our resolve to protect First Amendment rights. I don’t know how it happened, but we have dozens of people, hundreds of people, really, who either slept through civics class or never had it explained to them that the First Amendment applies to odious, sexist, racist speech, too. It’s embarrassing. It’s not a majority of people with this misconception, but it’s enough of them enabled by the National Lawyers Guild to grease the path toward more and more dangerous police “tools” to try to corral their long, slithering, snaky equation of non sequitur: sexists + fascists + racists + neo-Nazis = people whom they assume (because of their attire) voted for Donald Trump (and deserve to get run out of town if not beaten up) or voted for someone equally odious like Hillary Clinton (and deserve to get run out of town if not beaten up). I might have that equation wrong, but I have honestly tried talking to a lot of them and as soon as I ask questions they bristle and hiss.
My own experience has shown that the biggest bullies with the loudest mouths and the flashiest costumes and weapons are usually cowards. Most of us have heard offensive speech before and know how to handle it without improvised weapons from Home Depot. If it were up to me, I would snap my fingers and have everybody show the conservative provocateurs the time of their lives while they’re here; take them to Chez Panisse, tour the town, come to the Starry Plough Irish jam and sing songs with a big chorus. I would do that West Virginia thing if they tried to bait me and just say, oh, that is so interesting, please go on. The ability to resist being baited, after all, is powerful. In the case of these nationwide political confrontations, it is crucial.