By now you’ve probably seen the pictures or video of seated, non-violent protestors at U.C. Davis being doused with pepper spray. Having been subjected to pepper spray (and its nasty cousin, tear gas), I can empathize with the protestors. While I’m not particularly sympathetic to their cause, I am appalled at the way they were treated. I completely agree with Tobias Winright, a theological ethicist who used to work in law enforcement, who explains why the use of pepper spray in this situation appears to be excessive:
Now, I was not there, and I do not know all the details leading up to it; however, police are trained to remove protesters like these (their tactic of kneeling and making the police have to move them reminds me of similar approaches employed by some Catholic anti-abortion and/or anti-war protesters) through alternative means. For example, one officer can touch certain pressure-points (which still may involve some pain) while another officer binds protester’s hands as they become unlinked to others’ arms. The use of pepper spray in many of the videos I’ve seen (at UC-Davis and elsewhere) appears more to aim at punishing rather than at getting a threatening person to comply as safely (for all, the officer as well as the offender) as possible. Simply put, the use of force (including pepper spray, handcuffing, the use of batons, etc.) is not at all supposed to involve any notion of punishment or humiliation. Police are supposed to serve and protect all citizens, including those they regrettably have to arrest. For the latter, though, any force necessary to subdue the suspect should beproportionate (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). Unfortunately, not all police officers are trained well (and some who are trained well sometimes fail to adhere to that training). Also, not all departments possess and embody a “just policing” ethos, although much has been attempted to move toward “social peacekeeping” or “community policing” models in recent decades. Even so, I recall hearing a training officer at a city police department where I taught ethics workshops (and a department that emphasized community policing) once tell trainees while practicing arrest techniques for dealing with protesters, “There’s no such thing as nonviolence and pacifist protesters.” Not good. [emphasis in original]
Joe Carter is the web editor of First Things. You can follow him on Twitter.