On #Occupy, civil disobedience and the disproportionate use of force

Last week I found myself quite upset about the arrest of journalists covering the protests in NYC and beyond. This weekend, video showing a UC Davis police officer spraying non-violent protesters with pepper spray cemented a deep and growing concern about the actions of law enforcement with respect to peaceful civil disobedience. If citizens do not follow orders to lawfully disperse or otherwise commit civil disobedience, they can expect arrest. To make those arrests with disproportionate violence, however, seems to me to violate the 4th Amendment. If the people who are sworn to protect our rights violate them, I perceive an issue for our social compact.

As +Trevor Timm pointed out today, there is a legal precedent to hold the officer in question culpable for his actions, based up a ruling in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court on the use of pepper spray by officers.

Where isolated acts of disproportionate violence in one city might have simmered, now a nation connected with smartphones, YouTube and the Internet can see what others bear witness to where ever it occurs. http://witness.org has been hosting these stories for years. Over the last year, we’ve watched violence from across the Middle East filmed and shared on YouTube. Now we’re seeing the impact of those connection technologies upon the understanding and awareness of civil unrest here in the United States. 

An iconic photograph from Portland, Oregon and the many videos that came from the incident at U.C. Davis this weekend are now focusing the eyes of millions upon a different issue than economic inequality, the financial meltdown or high unemployment: police brutality. And they are provoking outrage.

+Nicholas Kristof's most recent column cites other examples, including action that put a veteran in intensive care in Oakland or an 84-year old woman in Seattle who was pepper-sprayed. This pattern began in NYC, at the original #OWS protest, when an officer sprayed women who had been cordoned off. (He was disciplined and lost 10 vacation days for the action: Kristof kept his focus on the underlying economic issues and his wish that Occupy protest “occupy the agenda” on inequality.

+James Fallows captured something important today, with respect to the greater import of the events in UC Davis, over at the Atlantic:

"Let’s stipulate that there are legitimate questions of how to balance the rights of peaceful protest against other people’s rights to go about their normal lives, and the rights of institutions to have some control over their property and public spaces. Without knowing the whole background, I’ll even assume for purposes of argument that the UC Davis authorities had legitimate reason to clear protestors from an area of campus — and that if protestors wanted to stage a civil-disobedience resistance to that effort, they should have been prepared for the consequence of civil disobedience, which is arrest.

I can’t see any legitimate basis for police action like what is shown here. Watch that first minute and think how we’d react if we saw it coming from some riot-control unit in China, or in Syria. The calm of the officer who walks up and in a leisurely way pepper-sprays unarmed and passive people right in the face? We’d think: this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population. That’s what I think here.”

It’s unclear as of yet how our national elected officials will act in response to these events. If the President of the United States condemned violence committed in Egypt by police officers against peaceful protesters, what will he say about its use in New York City or the University of California Davis?