Too Much Violence and Pepper Spray at the OWS Protests
Police dressed in riot gear at U.C. Davis on Friday afternoon used pepper spray to clear seated protesters from the university quad where they had set up a small Occupy encampment, pro-actively and repeatedly dousing the passively-resisting students with a chemical agent designed to cause pain and suffering in order to make it easier to remove them.
It is hard to look at this kind of attack and think this is how we do things in America.
And yet it is all too American. America has a very long history of protests that meet with excessive or violent response, most vividly recorded in the second half of the 20th century. It is a common fantasy among people born in the years since the great protests movements — and even some not so great ones — that they would have stood on the bold side of history had they been alive at the time and been called to make a choice. But the truth is that American protest movements in real time — and especially in their early days — often appear controversial, politically difficult, out-of-the-mainstream, and dangerous. And they are met with fear.
Even decades later, acts of protest can be the subject of heated debate and lead people to question (as well as celebrate) the moral standing of those who put their bodies on the line during moments of historic tumult — as Sen. John Kerry, Vietnam veteran and former anti-Vietnam protester, learned during his presidential bid in 2004.
This sort of dynamic holds for pretty much any group that aims to upend the existing social order using direct action, because few resort to such tactics if they think they have other, easier ways to petition for redress of grievances or could be heard as loudly through existing channels of expression. The Tea Party movement, for example, has held many protests but with few exceptions has stopped short of civil disobedience, finding early on that its members were by and large not willing to face arrest and that it could gain power relatively quickly through the political system by backing challengers in Republican primaries and allying with experienced party operatives. The Occupy movement is both very new and rather diffuse so far, and appears less interested in gaining power than making power uncomfortable and raising far-reaching questions and public awareness.