Chances are by now you've seen this picture in one form or another. No, it's not Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller after he'd just been shot through the mouth by the Ohio National Guard, but it does promise to become an iconic image of the Occupy uprisings on America's college campuses in its depiction of disturbingly casual violence by authorities against kids who are doing nothing more than exercising their right to protest peacefully.
As I've said before, I tend to allow the police quite a bit of leeway in most situations, certainly ones involving crowd control -- that benefit of the doubt stemming from my own history as the son of an ex-cop -- but my first reaction when I watched the clip of Police Lt. John Pike pepper spraying the faces of unarmed students sitting down on the UC Davis campus shocked me. I think I actually said out loud, "Why isn't anyone tackling that asshole?" Of course I know the answer to this question, and of course it's good that no one actually did try to stop the police through physical force as the result would've been disastrous.
It's not about that, though. My instinctive, visceral reaction was that an injustice was being committed and that somebody needed to do something to immediately put a stop to it. I don't care that the guy behind the unconscionable cruelty was wearing a badge and riot gear and had been allowed to intervene at the request of UC Davis's own chancellor; he was still wrong and had he been anyone else but a cop, every single person there would've been completely within their right to kick the crap out of him.
What he did was brutal, unprovoked and entirely unnecessary. He's a lousy cop who didn't know how to handle what seemed for all intents and purposes to amount to a relatively cut-and-dry confrontation with a bunch of kids who weren't in any way a threat to him. He and his fellow officers very likely fell back on a ridiculously faulty belief -- that because pepper spray, tear gas and the like are designated non-lethal weapons that it's perfectly alright to use them wantonly and that they should be the first choice rather than a last resort in dealing with protesters who refuse to do what you tell them to but who aren't threatening you. It's lazy policing, pure and simple, and the person who thinks that way doesn't deserve to be a cop.
One more thing: In an effort to both broaden the scope of this incident for maximum mileage and drag one of their favorite targets into the crosshairs, some of the usual suspects on the left are blaming President Obama for the nationwide crackdown by police on the Occupy protests, as if local authorities all plug into the federal Matrix to get their daily marching orders. This is a useful liberal "police state" fantasy, but it's nonsense. The reality is that the "militarization" of many American police departments has nothing to do with the Obama administration -- or any other -- homeland security, or even the drug war, per se. It has to do with the cops being outgunned on the streets by the criminals. For years, the police carried revolvers or semi-autos while the ones committing crimes -- some of whom were actually involved in the protection of the drug trade -- packed AKs and Mossbergs. If you've ever wondered why, say, the LAPD became the impersonal blue machine it's now regarded as, it's because of what it was up against. Granted, guys like Daryl Gates took the idea of an impenetrable and insurmountable police department way too far, but that military aesthetic began in the country's urban centers and spread outward from there. The idea of the friendly police officer on the street corner is long-since a thing of the past; a bad-ass police "force" is nothing new under the sun.
The problem is that this is what you get: military crowd control tactics used against a bunch of kids sitting down on a street in the middle of a college campus quad. What happened at UC Davis was unforgivable and hopefully someone will pay dearly for it and that action will send a message to those put in the position of dealing with non-violent protesters. And it speaks volumes that these particular protesters remained peaceful when, to be honest, they had every right not to.
Update: Think the video above is powerful stuff? Watch this, as UC Davis students lined up by the hundreds and silently confronted Chancellor Linda Katehi as she left the school last night -- basically turning it into a perp-walk-of-shame.