What people of faith have to say about the Davis pepper spraying incident

Occupy Wall Street Protests, Police, and Pepper Spray: Nothing to Sneeze At | Catholic Moral Theology Occupy Wall Street Protests, Police, and Pepper Spray: Nothing to Sneeze At |
[Via Catholic Moral Theology]

As a theological ethicist who also used to work in law enforcement, I feel obligated to comment on the latest incident involving police using pepper spray on Occupy Wall Street protesters. Garance Franke-Ruta over at The Atlantic provides, I think, a fair account of this, including most recently the one at the University of California-Davis. In my view, based on the videos and the reports available to date, the spraying of kneeling students by Lt. John Pike was unjustified; it was excessive force and an example of police brutality. Most law enforcement officers are pepper-sprayed as part of their training so that they know what it feels like whenever they use it (plus, often when it is employed, some blows onto the officer, so s/he had be prepared beforehand for what it feels like). I remember being out of commission for a whole day following being sprayed directly in the face during training–it is very painful and incapacitating. Indeed, Fox’s Megyn Kelly should try it before making the silly comment that it’s “a food product, essentially”.


A very worthwhile read. This is an important point:

Police are supposed to serve and protect all citizensincluding those they regrettably have to arrest. For the latter, though, any force necessary to subdue the suspect should be proportionate (i.e., similar to the moral reasoning found in the Catholic just war tradition–just enough necessary to accomplish the job and in the least harmful way, if possible, given a constellation of available options).

Misdemeanor trespassing is what the pepper-sprayed students were charged with. Pepper spray – a level 5 tool just one step below lethal force – was not proportionate to the crime.

But the student’s response, as mentioned in another article on faith, was not only proportionate the pepper spray but also a much more sustaining approach than the violence of the officers. The campus minister, Rev. Kristin Stoneking, helped defuse the situation following a press conference by helping negotiate this response.

Those 3 minutes of silence from angry students, as they adopted the same positions as the students from the previous day, is pretty amazing. The only sounds come from reporters who have to be reminded that something important is happening.

The fact that it was the campus chaplain who helped negotiate this response serves to demonstrate that people of faith still have a tremendously powerful role. Here is some of her firsthand account:

Once inside, and through over an hour of conversation, we learned the following:

  • The Chancellor had made a commitment that police would not be called in this situation
  • Though the message had been received inside the building that students were offering a peaceful exit, there was a concern that not everyone would hold to this commitment
  • The Chancellor had committed to talk with students personally and respond to concerns at the rally on Monday on the quad
  • The student assistants to the Chancellor had organized another forum on Tuesday for the Chancellor to dialogue directly with students

What we felt couldn’t be compromised on was the students’ desire to see and be seen by the Chancellor.  Any exit without face to face contact was unacceptable.  She was willing to do this. We reached agreement that the students would move to one side of the walkway and sit down as a show of commitment to nonviolence.

Before we left, the Chancellor was asked to view a video of the student who was with me being pepper sprayed. She immediately agreed.  Then, he and I witnessed her witnessing eight minutes of the violence that occurred Friday.  Like a recurring nightmare, the horrific scene and the cries of “You don’t have to do this!” and students choking and screaming rolled again.  The student and I then left the building and using the human mike, students were informed that a request had been made that they move to one side and sit down so that the Chancellor could exit.  They immediately complied, though I believe she could have left peacefully even without this concession.

I returned to the building and walked with the Chancellor down the human walkway to her car.  Students remained silent and seated the entire way.

I have to say that Katahi showed some real strength of character to make that walk. She was a student in Greece during the early 70s when students rose up and helped topple a military regime. She knows firsthand the destructive power of angry mobs.

To walk among them like that must have been hard, and perhaps it needed to be in order to begin reconcialiation. Stoneking has a keen knowledge of how to do this.

The silent walk demonstrates not only the ability of people willing to have a discussion to find creative solutions, but also the importance of dealing with anger without succumbing to it.

Why did I walk the Chancellor to her car?  Because I believe in the humanity of all persons.  Because I believe that people should be assisted when they are afraid.  Because I believe that in showing compassion we embrace a nonviolent way of life that emanates to those whom we refuse to see as enemies and in turn leads to the change that we all seek.  I am well aware that my actions were looked on with suspicion by some tonight, but I trust that those seeking a nonviolent solution will know that  “just means lead to just ends” and my actions offered dignity not harm.

I believe Jesus Christ  – whether God or man – was a great teacher because he described the path out of the revenge cycle of violence so common to many religions and cultures. Anger against the other creates violence which engenders anger in the other that creates violence which produces anger…

Whether it is the New Commandment to love one another, the Second Great Commandment to love our neighbors, turning the other cheek in response to evil, or how to love one’s enemies, His teachings show a path that breaks cycles of violence that often reverberate during times of change and strife.

Perhaps more of us can follow that silent path towards reconciliation and healing. It is the only way to reconnect the divided threads of our country.

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