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Weapon of Choice

By Dr. Stephen LondeWe 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.

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.

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