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Posted on Dec 1, 2011
AP / Nick Ut

Long Beach police officers pepper spray student demonstrators during a protest at a California State University board of trustees meeting.

By Dr. Stephen Londe

We are used to the excuses and dissembling of politicians such as Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York City, Mike McGinn of Seattle, Sam Adams of Portland, Ore., Jean Quan of Oakland and now L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as they collude to use false claims of health and safety to suppress the right of free speech.

But we in academia are charged with teaching and fostering critical thinking, academic rigor and honesty. So what are we to think of UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who do not seem to grasp the basic principle of academic freedom as they unleash repression and violence in response to reasoned dissent and peaceful protest—protest that represents some of the finest traditions of academic contribution?

The images of university police and sheriff’s deputies pepper spraying nonviolent students voicing their opinions on campus grounds, or brutally jabbing them with batons or dragging them away by the hair, plainly demonstrate these administrators’ attitude toward critical thinking.

Is this the America we want?

As a physician, I too am concerned about health and safety. Yet I can find no articles online about the relationship of tents and public health, nor of fires and protest tent camps, nor of disease outbreak and unsanitary conditions for lack of waste disposal in public protest encampments—even encampments 10 times larger than those just disbanded by chemical weapons, force and arrest.

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But in an instant, I find more than 39,000 references to health concerns about the use of so-called pepper spray (Oleoresin capsicum). Of significant concern to health professionals are: “in-custody deaths” after the use of pepper spray, corneal abrasions, conjunctivitis, eye epithelial and nerve damage, respiratory failure, asthma, exacerbated congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, pulmonary edema, pregnancy miscarriage, and short- and long-term psychological damage caused by the force perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect us and our right to dissent.

Make no mistake, pepper spray is not “a food product,” as a Fox newscaster recently described it. It is a chemical weapon described in military manuals that attacks sensory nerves and mucous membranes. The police use of this weapon against peaceful protesters fits the definition of torture: The deliberate application of severe pain. It is not benign. When you watch armored police spray the faces of protesters in Philadelphia, Oakland, Davis and New York, remember they are using torture to silence someone who committed the crime of speaking out.

Again, I am sensitive to health concerns. And, in fact, there are health problems to be found among the 99 percent protesters. Volunteer doctors, nurses and other health care workers find untreated hypertension, diabetes and other chronic illnesses among the protesters. They also find seizure disorders in people unable to afford their medications.

Most of the health problems in this population are due to the lack of health insurance, inability to pay for expensive medications and lack of proper health care facilities. If our mayors were honestly interested in the health of their constituents, they would set up facilities where volunteer health professionals could care for our citizens. Perhaps they could set up medication and lab diagnostic funds into which their corporate backers could donate like good citizens, instead of using their wealth to buy political influence.

If we are to encourage education and critical thinking, we must value our students in dissent. Punishing them with batons and pepper spray, torturing them, martyring them is to produce a society of evil and repression. It is anathema to education.

Dissent and peaceful assembly are the hallmarks of democracy. What has happened to ours? Our abused students are showing us the way, and I salute them.


Stephen Londe is a physician and an educator.


New and Improved Comments

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By Dieseldude, December 2, 2011 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We must do everything at our disposal to support
this movement. For it’s the youth of the nation
who are our only hope. Sadly, they will be called
upon to enslave themselves to right generations
of lost direction. The process has started the
focus has shifted. The foundations on which the
1% stand have begun sinking into the abiss which
they themselves created. With a little luck this
should prove to be an interesting spring indeed.
The world is watching with hopes set high. May
the great sleeping dragon rear it’s nappy head
and lunge forth from inside us all….

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By SteveL, December 1, 2011 at 11:21 pm Link to this comment

Pepper Spray the latest form of trickle down?

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By Jackie, December 1, 2011 at 10:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Dr. Londe. The hypocrisy is clear to anyone who can think and,
unfortunately, must be pointed out over and over and over again with,
unfortunately, little result. Until now maybe?

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By cclauson, December 1, 2011 at 10:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Now that pepper spray can be used in academia to settle debate, I think I’m going to pepper spray my professor next time he assigns homework on a busy week.

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By vanseras, December 1, 2011 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

The only “danger” is that people peacefully engaged in civil protest and refused to move when ordered.  Nobody threatened the cops or anyone else.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, December 1, 2011 at 3:28 pm Link to this comment

NABNYC, December 1 at 11:05 am:

The first ten amendments to the constitution protect the inherent right of citizens to speak, assemble, petition the government for a redress of their grievances.  But these inherent rights of the individual are not totally immune from all regulation including, for example, time place and manner (as the courts call it).  So a publisher may have the right to publish sexually explicit magazines and photos, and a news rack may have the right to sell those, but the government can prohibit the sale within so many blocks of a school, for example.  So our rights are subject to some reasonable restrictions.

You may have the right to speak, but if you stand outside people’s apartment buildings at midnight and scream, along with 1000 of your friends, so that your neighbors cannot get to sleep, you may be held liable for disturbing the peace, and you may be removed.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for a city to establish public parks for the use of all, but prohibit people from living in the parks, sleeping there, having food preparation (which may draw rats) there.  I see no contradiction, no constitutional violations. ...’

See this comment of a few days ago, and some of the replies and replies to replies, which addresses the same subject.

The central issue is whether the rights of property defeat the rights of expression, assembly, association and so forth.  So far I have not been able to get any of the fans of property to justify their position in terms of political philosophy.

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By SarcastiCanuck, December 1, 2011 at 2:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nice article doc.Once the bullying starts,the regime loses its legitimacy.As the Arabs are proving right now,terror only begets more terror because somebody always wants payback…

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By Marian Griffith, December 1, 2011 at 2:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@BrilliantBill
—-This in a country that holds itself up as a beacon of freedom and free expression!—-

And make no mistake, the rest of the world has ceased viewing the USA as such about a decade ago when it set out to wage a war that all independent foreign news media could how was based on conjunctions and outright lies.
There was a moment of hope in the rest of the world that the election of Obama meant that the country would retract its steps on the path of madness and return to respectability. That lasted about a year though and the hope has been thoroughly disillusioned.
Even the USA’s staunchest supporters (the UK) view it as a bully and not as a shining example. In the rest of the world approval rates of the USA probably are similar to that of how the USA approves of its houses of representatives…

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By ardee, December 1, 2011 at 1:36 pm Link to this comment

NABNYC, December 1 at 11:05 am

I am in agreement with your postion on the use of pepper spray and not with your position on restrictions on free speech and the right of free assembly.

Obviously the Occupy movements are not standing outside peoples homes or otherwise disturbing private citizens they are demonstrating in front of businesses and government offices. Many occupiers have noted that they have their own sanitation squads as well, thus at least partially negating your ‘dread’ of rats.

Just as obviously the disrupting of these demonstrators is done at the behest of those being exposed to the community at large by these demonstrations.

Inherit The Wind, December 1 at 7:11 am

Thans for the second line, but the first seems petty and unecessary.

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Outraged's avatar

By Outraged, December 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment

Re: NABNYC

Your comment: “I think it is perfectly reasonable
for a city to establish public parks for the use of
all, but prohibit people from living in the parks,
sleeping there, having food preparation (which may
draw rats) there.  I see no contradiction, no
constitutional violations.”

I disagree. The First Amendment specifically states
“Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,
or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably
to assemble, and to petition the Government for a
redress of grievances.”

The FACT that this is POLITICAL SPEECH regarding a
redress of grievances and is peaceful supercedes
local ordinances of park closing times or “camping”.
Because the premise of the protesters is NOT CAMPING
for the sake of camping, but a gathering to redress
grievances in the form of a 24/7 vigil.

While it’s all well and fine in other cases to make these types of local ordinances, the minute the issue is First Amendment Rights (especially political speech), then these ordinances should not apply and should be secondary to Constitutional Rights. Invoking local ordinances to stifle peaceful political protest (no matter it’s form) IS “abridging the freedom of speech…..etc”.

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By berniem, December 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm Link to this comment

One 32oz bottle of “Screaming Rooster” sauce + 1 gal. of distilled water + 1 1&1/2 gal. manual plant sprayer = a fitting response to those so willing to “serve & protect”! FREE BRADLEY MANNING & TIM DECHRISTOPHER!!!!!!

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By objective observer, December 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“corneal abrasions…et al” vs 55 grain copper/lead projectile at 3200 feet per second from an M16 variant with the massive damage from the terminal ballistics of said projectile. 

hmmm, i guess the latter wouldn’t be considered “torture” as the result would be death if applied properly.  having treated both as a healthcare provider, it is much easier to treat “corneal abrasions, et al” than a high velocity gun shot wound.  the pepper spray leaves a bad taste and a good lesson, the bullet leaves body parts missing and the probable death of the protester.

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By BrilliantBill, December 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm Link to this comment

Thanks, Doc. Nice to have someone with your credentials call this what it is. And the wonderful contrast of references to public health in tent cities vs health effects of OC is so telling.

The U.S. has signed onto and ratified an international agreement recognizing oleoresin capsicum as a chemical weapon and agreeing not to use it in war. Yet, we are free to use it against our own citizens who have gotten uppity enough to exercise their constitutional right to free expression. This in a country that holds itself up as a beacon of freedom and free expression!

As a citizen of the United States, I have an expectation that I will not be subject to chemical warfare by civilian police when I exercise my entirely legal right to free expression. Even if I choose peaceful civil disobedience as a more dramatic form of free expression, I should not expect to be the target of chemical warfare. I am a military veteran, and I have been in war. I did not fear chemical weapons in war. Why must I fear them as a civilian now in my own country at peace?

Since oleoresin capsicum is such a safe tool for behavior modification and compliance, I wonder what’s next? Perhaps we should use it in child rearing? A child doesn’t want to go to bed? He’s throwing a tantrum in the supermarket? No problem—a quick shot of OC and peace and order instantly restored. And what a peaceful and compliant citizen he will be when grown. Don’t bet on it.

Finally, it’s nice to “salute” our abused students, but I think they need more than that. Let’s find some ways to genuinely support them.

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By NABNYC, December 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm Link to this comment

The first ten amendments to the constitution protect the inherent right of citizens to speak, assemble, petition the government for a redress of their grievances.  But these inherent rights of the individual are not totally immune from all regulation including, for example, time place and manner (as the courts call it).  So a publisher may have the right to publish sexually explicit magazines and photos, and a news rack may have the right to sell those, but the government can prohibit the sale within so many blocks of a school, for example.  So our rights are subject to some reasonable restrictions.

You may have the right to speak, but if you stand outside people’s apartment buildings at midnight and scream, along with 1000 of your friends, so that your neighbors cannot get to sleep, you may be held liable for disturbing the peace, and you may be removed.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for a city to establish public parks for the use of all, but prohibit people from living in the parks, sleeping there, having food preparation (which may draw rats) there.  I see no contradiction, no constitutional violations.

The use of pepper spray, on the other hand, is clearly illegal in most of the OWS scenarios.  The police have no authority to punish the citizens.  They can arrest somebody who has been charged with a crime, or commits a crime in the presence of the police.  But the police cannot punish.  Using pepper spray is a physical assault, and it is punishment.  The only authority the police have is to use such force as may be necessary to arrest, or to prevent the defendant from committing harm to himself or to others.  They can certainly use force against a defendant who is holding a gun on a crowd, or a knife. 

So with OWS, we need to ask what force was reasonably necessary to be used by the police to stop somebody who was a danger to themselves or others.  The answer is:  none.  The only “danger” is that people peacefully engaged in civil protest and refused to move when ordered.  Nobody threatened the cops or anyone else.  Under those circumstances, the police cannot use violence to force people to do what they tell them to do, so the violence (pepper spray) was illegal.  The only recourse the police have in these circumstances is to lift and carry the protestors to remove them.  That’s it.  No violence is justified.

There should be lawsuits all over the country on this issue because it is an important one.  The police have no authority to punish citizens, and the city/employer should be liable in damages when the police do so if they were following instructions from the city.

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By felicity, December 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm Link to this comment

One more weapon in Newt’s armory should he become
president.  Newt recently announced that water-boarding
if ordered by the President (specially Newt, I suspect)
should be permissible “in special cases.”  Apparently,
water-boarding is torture unless the president orders
it and then it’s not?

Fast-forward to pepper spray - torture unless ordered
by the President.  Would you agree, Dr. Londe?

Report this

By NZDoug, December 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm Link to this comment

Lots a stuff on militarization of police on Democracy Now.
Don’t Taze me, man!
Good thing everyone in the USA has guns.

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By Gordy, December 1, 2011 at 10:18 am Link to this comment

When security forces use force against protesters we
have to ask whether they were really suppressing
dissenting voices or just preventing the protesters
from storming administration-centres and possibly
trashing them. Which was it in this case? Were the
protesters stationed in an area doing no harm except to
consciences or were they trying to disrupt business as
usual?

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DonSchneider's avatar

By DonSchneider, December 1, 2011 at 8:36 am Link to this comment

The police doing the spraying and bashing with batons must come to the
realization that they are spraying and bashing themselves ! When we are able to
truly convince them of this reality, we will have made the only “real” progress on
the path to reclaiming our nation from the plutocrats and the oligarchy !

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By Inherit The Wind, December 1, 2011 at 8:11 am Link to this comment

Never thought I say this:
Bravo, Ardee!

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Tesla's avatar

By Tesla, December 1, 2011 at 7:24 am Link to this comment

Didn’t the U.S. invade Iraq over the danger of chemical
weapons?

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By balkas, December 1, 2011 at 6:40 am Link to this comment

this peace enlightens me. hitherto, i knew nothing about ‘pepper’ spray.
now i know enough—thanks to this piece—to agree that the ‘pepper’
spray is indeed a chemical weapon. tnx

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By ardee, December 1, 2011 at 5:59 am Link to this comment

Should the Occupy movement continue to gain traction, and I for one certainly hope that it does, pepper spray will be the least of our worries. Violence on the part of the haves, and their minions in paramilitary riot police is unavoidable, sadly.

It is a difficult task , when confronted by violence, to avoid such oneself. But we all must keep in mind that violence on our part plays directly into the hands of our fascist masters and will be returned treble. Nonviolence on the part of demonstrators serves to educate and gain sympathy, and , in a small way at least, to abate the violence of many on the police forces that will be turned out to silence us all.

One need look no further than these pages to see the conscienceless scum who continually attempts to paint the Occupy movement as violence prone and thus justify the violence of the police against them. Good lap dogs, good boys…

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