Maybe it’s better than police clubs; certainly it’s better than guns, but it burns badly and is a traumatic experience for anyone on the other end of a hard douse. Once again, the use of pepper spray by police has become a flash point for the discussion of police brutality. And once again the image of officers brazenly attacking a civilian in what that appears to be an unwarranted situation is making its viral way around the globe.
This time it was in Brazil, which is currently in upheaval with thousands of demonstrators (some of them rioters) taking to the streets to protest government corruption, shoddy public services and… police violence. Images of burning cars and marauding youths throwing stones at police are dominating the story in Brazil, one that echoes what’s been occurring in Turkey, even Sweden: civilians hitting a tipping point and exploding in protests and, unfortunately, violence. Which is ironic, since violence – police violence – is at the heart of each of these events.
Which makes it all the more ironic that some of the most seminal images to come out of the riots across the globe have captured police overstepping their bounds. No one can argue with police doing everything they can to avert tragedy, stop criminal behavior, or defend their own safety, but when a single woman standing alone on a deserted street corner is suddenly, and without warning, blasted with a powerful stream of pepper spray, it not only illustrates the problem, it makes the news.
There is a story behind the image above. The photographer, Victor Caivano, says he was on the street after the latest melee had broken up; it was late (around 11:20 pm), quiet, and the women seen in the photo, described as a “normal, middle-class university student,” was standing alone on the street corner. From New Yorker Magazine:
Three riot officers approached the woman and told her to leave. When she objected — the woman either questioned the order or insisted that she wasn’t doing anything wrong, Caivano recalls — she was pepper-sprayed. “This policeman just didn’t think twice,” Caivano says.
The woman stumbled backward, “screaming and cursing.” She was detained and taken to a police van. Caivano says local reporters are now trying to track her down.
Caivano had a wider cropped version of the image which clearly shows how isolated the woman was, with a lack of any other activity occurring at the time or location:
This image cannot be parsed or misinterpreted. A young woman is sprayed full-on, directly into her face, for simply questioning police demands that she leave. It reminds me of an earlier story I wrote earlier for Addicting Info about a young African American boy on a Florida beach on Memorial Day who dared question aggressive police and ended up on the ground in a chokehold.
The story also reminds me of two other iconic images which involve police, pepper spray, and unwarranted use. One took place recently in Turkey:
It is a two-minute walk from Ceyda Sungur’s second-floor office to Gezi Park, a rare green space in Istanbul’s teeming centre. Last Tuesday [June 4], Sungur was among a small group of people who made their way to the park to defend it from the diggers that had moved in to flatten it. The bulldozers had begun tearing out chunks the previous day.
What happened next would transform Sungur – an academic at Istanbul’s Technical University – into a global symbol of anti-government resistance. She had dashed out from the university’s urban planning department in a red summer cotton dress. She wore a simple necklace and carried a white shoulder bag.
When Sungur arrived she found a line of riot police. One of them crouched down and fired pepper spray directly into her face. The jet sent her hair billowing upwards. As she turned, the masked policeman leapt forward and hosed down her back. The unprovoked attack left her and other activists choking and gasping for breath; afterwards Sungur collapsed on a bench. [Source]
The images of police repeatedly and persistently following her and bombarding her face with spray are mind-boggling. The possible reason cited for the unprovoked aggression can only be guessed at, but it stunned the global community and made a symbol out of the young woman in the red dress.
And, of course, the American entry into this dubious gallery of pepper-spraying police is the infamous incident at the University of California, Davis, in which a peaceful protest on the school campus erupted into an overly aggressive show of police force, culminating an the unprovoked, profoundly unwarranted attack by Officer John Pike, who sprayed burning yellow chemicals into the faces of seated students protesting as part of the nationwide Occupy movement, in their particular case, “against economic inequality and excesses of the financial system.”
This attack was videotaped and sent flying around social media and journalism sites, provoking such a backlash that the internet community vented by creating endless memes making fun of the sadistic police officer. Here’s just one of many:
While there is something humorous in the creative outpouring of horrified protestors, in truth, the original photographic images of police brutality are gut-churning. To see unarmed, unaggressive bystanders who, by virtue of their location at a time and place where trouble was brewing, were assaulted by authority figures spraying burning, toxic, chemicals, is an unforgettable visual. Likely there are many more that occur every day; these particular ones exist as iconic moments that symbolize bigger movements, of countries, of people, even of students. These images are important historical documents of what happened, how, and to whom. Hopefully they will contribute, by sheer virtue of their shock value, to change, progress, and needed solutions; the agony of those attacked has to account for something of value.
Correction: An earlier version of the story referred to “thousands of rioters” in Brazil. It has been changed to the more accurate “thousands of demonstrators (some of them rioters)…”