By now, this video of the UC-Davis cop pepper-spraying non-violent student protesters has become ubiquitous:
In discussions with others about this incident, at least two people have made the same remark to me about the cop’s flourishing of the pepper-spray, right before he starts using it, for what he clearly feels is his audience:
PERSON A: I think he was trying to get on record that he had warned the kids what was coming if they didn’t leave.
PERSON B: You just know that his excuse is going to be that he told the protesters what he was going to do if they didn’t get up and leave, so it’s their fault that he had to pepper-spray them.
Now, I agree with these persons’ assessments of what we see in the video and what it is the cop thought he was doing. But what I find extremely disturbing about all this is the underlying assumption that goes into the cop’s little performance. He clearly anticipates – and is probably correct in doing so – that the average American citizen will agree that if the protesters didn’t comply with his order to clear the premises after he threatened them with violence then they deserve to get hit with pepper-spray (or maybe tazed, or perhaps beaten with nightsticks).
But this mindset is insane. I don’t recall ever voting to give cops the right to abuse people for failure to comply with an order. Arrest them, sure, slip the little zip-cuffs on them and haul them away to be bound before a magistrate – that is the very essence of peaceful protest, of civil disobedience. But when did we decide that – before doing that – the police are perfectly justified in physically abusing peaceful protesters?
This seems to me an example of the idea of “liberty” – i.e., you have only the privileges society affords you, which can be taken away from you at any time by the people responsible for enforcing society’s dictates – trumping the idea of “freedom” – i.e., you have an absolute right to exercise certain prerogatives that precedes society’s dictates, and society may not abridge these rights. (See here for more on the liberty/freedom distinction).
And that is very dangerous, because it can only work to enshrine the status quo. While enshrining and perpetuating the status quo is the goal of any system, it cannot be the final goal of our society. If it were, we’d still have segregation. Hell, if it were, we might still have slavery.
Sometimes events conspire to prove that the status quo is unjust and inequitable and needs to be changed. And that is when the freedom to challenge the status quo has to trump society’s interest in maintaining “business as usual.”