No Pepper Spray on Nonviolent Protesters

 page created 2/25/03


Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune, 1997


Star-Tribune Editorial Page Editor

With chilling deliberateness, a deputy sheriff dips a cotton swab into a cup filled with pepper spray. He approaches 16-year-old Maya who is sitting quietly on the floor with a soft, brown hat on her head. A police officer forces back her head and pries open her right eye. The swab is swept across her lower eyelid. The girl stifles a sob.

They repeat the operation on her left eye. She shakes her head as if to shake off the intense pain.

She could be your daughter, my daughter. She wasn't threatening anyone. She wasn't violent. She had no weapon. Moments before she had been smiling. Now her head is bent as her eyes burn.

This isn't a scene from a South American torture squad, this is Humboldt County, Calif.

The uniforms crouch as they shuffle over to the next protester in the circle. They show no anger. Their actions are cool and purposeful. Someone gave them orders. They are following them.

One grabs Jennifer's head. "Will you release yourself?" he demands. "Don't," she pleads, "please don't." They smear her eyes with pepper spray.

All four women who sit in Congressman Frank Riggs' Eureka office moan in pain. Lisa kicks her feet to trample the pain she feels.

Their eyes are closed tight. They scream out.

Terri yells, "They are torturing American citizens with pepper spray."

The women remain linked to each other with metal sleeves over their arms. Linked in pain. Linked in cause. They refuse to unhook themselves.

The four sit arm-to-arm around a large tree stump in the middle of the floor in the office reception area.

The floor is strewn with sawdust and wood chips that three other protesters had dumped in Riggs' office. They had also wheeled in the redwood stump on a dolly, then left before Riggs' staff locked the women protesters in the office, so they would be there when the police arrived.

On the stump someone carved "This deal makes stumps of our future." They are protesting an agreement that allows the logging of a portion of Northern California's old-growth redwood forest. They brought their political protest to Riggs' office.

One of the women is now having trouble breathing. Her nose is running. Someone else coughs. And coughs. Someone snuffles.

Another shakes her legs and swings her head side to side. One cries, "Oh, my God. Oh. Oh, my God."

This is not a scene from a torture squad in Colombia or Chile. This is California redwood country. This is a congressman's state office.

After a few minutes, the women are warned to release themselves from the metal tubes so they can be arrested individually or, the officer says, "We will have to use a direct spray." They ask for five minutes to consider what to do.

"You've already made your point. Release yourselves," says the deputy.

"Why are you using chemical weapons on us?" Terri asks, "You have other options."

Five minutes later, the deputy and the police officer move behind Terri.

The police officer calmly pulls her ponytail back so her face is upturned. "Please let me go," she begs. The deputy leans over her and shoots the pepper spray directly into her closed left eye. The canister of chemical spray is not more than 4 inches from her face. Terri sobs and tries to pull away.

Terri would later call it "a shocking sensation that hurt incredibly."

"Will you release, now?" he insists softly. "Will you release now?"

The women unhook themselves.

One of the officer's says flatly, "We are not torturing you anymore."

This is a scene from a law enforcement video tape. It is real. It occurred on Oct. 16 in Eureka. In America.

Riggs sent out a press release from Washington D.C. in which he claimed his staff was "terrorized and assaulted." The police video does not confirm his assertion. Nor does the video tape the demonstrators took as they wheeled in the redwood stump and arranged themselves in a circle. They greeted the staff politely and told them why there were there.

If Riggs' staff was terrorized, why did they lock the protesters in the office with them?

There was no assault, no terrorism that is, until the sheriff deputies and police officers arrived.

It was a peaceful political demonstration, a cherished American tradition. Under the law, they could be arrested for trespass but it's not up to the police to punish them. That's the court's responsibility.

The California Department of Justice "recommends that Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper spray) be used only against violent or hostile subjects." Eureka law officers ignored it.

Oleoresin capsicum is derived from hot peppers. When applied to the eyes, it has an immediate and painful burning effect that may last for hours. It swells the eyes shut and makes it difficult to breathe. Medical studies show it can cause asthmatics to convulse and die. Pepper spray, some claim, can stop a grizzly bear better than a bullet.

Medical researchers John and Hazel Coleridge, emeritus professors at the University of California at San Francisco, have shown in animal studies that one of the active ingredients in pepper spray can stop the heart for five to 10 seconds. Oxygen levels in the body drop. Arterial pressure drops. Mucus fills the lungs. The heart goes haywire. Death follows.

Pepper spray has been implicated in the deaths of at least 31 people in California since January 1993, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

In 1995, the National Coalition on Police Accountability, (N-COPA) an organization of religious, community, legal and law enforcement representatives, called for a ban on the use of pepper spray. Lynne Wilson of N-COPA claims that at least 60 people in the United States have died because of the spray.

The manufacturer of the brand of pepper spray used in the Eureka action, Defense Technology Corp. of America (Casper, Wyoming), recommends that its spray not be used closer than three feet from the face to avoid permanent damage to the eyes.

When asked his gut reaction to this misuse of his company's pepper spray, Defense Tech's spokesman David DuBay of Casper said, "We won't make a comment on that. Since I'm employed, my personal opinion is also my professional opinion. Therefore, I won't have a comment on that."

The United States, which signed the United Nations Convention against Torture, describes torture in its own terms, as "the intentional infliction ... of severe physical pain or suffering ... directed against persons in the offender's custody or physical control."

The demonstrators were in police custody when they had the pepper spray daubed in their eyes.

Note: Charles Levendosky, editorial page editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, has a national reputation for First Amendment commentary.

1997 Casper Star-Tribune