The use of pepper spray by police to subdue some University of California, Davis protesters who appeared to be passively sitting on the ground sparked outrage nationwide after a video of the incident went viral over the weekend. The police chief at UC Davis and two police officers have since been put on administrative leave. Editorial boards were largely unanimous in their condemnation of the use of pepper spray at Davis and in other cities.
The Davis Enterprise, writing from the community in which the incident occurred, said on Nov. 19 that pepper spraying "went beyond necessary force."
"Watch the video. Look at the photographs. Read the account of what, until that point, had been a relatively peaceful manifestation of students' growing frustration at years and years of tuition increases," the newspaper suggested. "We think you'll come to the same conclusion we have: The pepper spraying ... was an overreaction to the situation."
The Sacramento Bee in its editorial from Nov. 20 focused on what an appropriate response from the university would be. The newspaper called the use of force "appalling" and appeared skeptical of the police officers' claims that it was necessary. But, the Bee noted regarding the protesters: "The First Amendment is not a license to say or do anything at any time." As the campus strives to move past it: "Leaders on both sides will need to act calmly and wisely to reconcile what happened Friday and avoid a repeat," the newspaper concluded.
On the East Coast, the Newark Star-Ledger was equally critical of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to evict the Occupy Wall Street movement and the "nasty and unnecessary" fulfillment of that order by the New York Police Department. The Nov. 16 editorial stated that Bloomberg's claim to be concerned with safety is undermined by the authorities' use of pepper spray against the protesters in the past.
"New York City's billionaire mayor was clearly uncomfortable with the message of Occupy Wall Street," the Star-Ledger asserted. "At a time when deficit reduction dominated political discussions, Occupy Wall Street successfully pushed the issue of great and growing income disparity to the forefront. And that should continue to occupy -- and trouble -- everyone's mind."
In Portland, protesters were also confronted with pepper spray last week as law enforcement attempted to remove them from a city square. A photographer from The Oregonian caught a picture of one protester catching a full face of the spray another image that has circulated since police action began last week. "You can almost feel the sting as it hits her eyes, nose and mouth," the newspaper's editorial board wrote on Nov. 18. "The Occupy Portland protest is still unfolding and its history has yet to be written. We all have a pretty good guess now, though, what the cover photo will be."
In Seattle, where pepper spraying also made headlines, the Seattle Times argued that both sides have "a duty to manage themselves well." The Nov. 18 editorial referenced a report after 1999's World Trade Organization protests that said chemical deterrents should be used as a last resort. "[B]ut increasing disruptions may turn an event noted for its mostly peaceful protesters with considerable public support into something less attractive," the Times added.
Reacting to the UC Davis incident and the subsequent video, Philip Kennicott, a critic for the Washington Post, said that the video "probably will be the defining imagery of the Occupy movement, rivaling in symbolic power, if not in actual violence, images from the Kent State shootings more than 40 years ago."
Furthermore, the clip "might open up a broader conversation about the proper role of the police, especially during an era in which it appears that protest against the established order may be more frequent and widespread," Kennicott said on Nov. 20. "This new era of protest, if it continues to develop, will play out on the Internet, with rapidly uploaded videos providing not just evidence of what happens, but evidence from numerous perspectives, as each encounter is recorded by dozens of onlookers and participants."