Pepper-Spraying The "Occupy" Protesters: Sport Or Necessary Evil?

Pepper Spraying

Liz Nichols, at five-foot-nothing, is hardly a physical threat to big, burly, well-armed police officers. But add Ms. Nichol’s tiny body and soft-spoken voice to a herd of angry protesters and suddenly she’s ten-feet-tall and bulletproof. And that’s exactly what she tried to become (unstoppable by police and other officials) when she and her fellow Occupy Portland protesters “sat down” inside a Chase Bank, refusing to move. Admittedly, her goal was to be arrested. Yes, it was her intention to break the law and, when officers entered the bank to remove Nichols and her group, she asked to be arrested.

However, officers did not arrest Ms. Nichols or her fellow protesters. Instead, the officers herded the group out onto the sidewalk where a large crowd of protesters were already refusing orders to disperse and vacate the street (they were impeding the flow of traffic on the street and sidewalks and blocking and interfering with business-as-usual in public places). Not only was this crowd of protesters refusing to obey the police order to disperse and vacate, they had begun to push back and throw items at the officers. By the way, announcements to disperse and vacate were continuously broadcasted via loudspeaker. The message also clearly stated that those who didn’t comply would be arrested. There was plenty of advance notice regarding impending arrests if orders were not obeyed. Everyone had the opportunity to leave. MORE than amply opportunity. The mob chose to ignore the continuous warnings.

Well, Ms. Nichol’s once tiny presence had grown significantly and had now become a huge threat to the safety of the definitely-outnumbered police officers and citizens who were attempting to conduct that business-as-usual. So what options were available to police? Actually, there weren’t many. They could do nothing and allow the protesters to take control of public places and businesses, such as parks, banks, city streets and sidewalks. Obviously, that would be the wrong thing to do.

Protesters attempt to occupy Steelbridge in Portland

Or,  the protesters could do what’s legal and leave those public places, obtain the proper permits, and then conduct their protests and have their voices heard in an appropriate venue.

A great example of having a message heard, without breaking the law, took place on August 28, 1963, when someone announced his “dream” to over 200,000 people.

In the case of Liz Nichols (receiving the mouthful of pepper spray in top photo), she and her fellow protesters across the country may have a valid point to make. But, and I’m speaking from the point of view of the police officers, there’s a better way to make that point. Why poke a stick into a hornet’s nest full of officers who have a job to do (remember, they’re acting on orders given from their bosses), and who simply want to do that job without getting hurt or hurting anyone else. Besides, the Occupier’s points are being overshadowed by all the negativity.

Believe me, it’s no fun to squirt pepper spray into the faces of unarmed people, especially tiny women like Liz Nichols. Actually, it’s a bit demeaning to do so. There’s always a feeling inside tugging at your emotions because you’ve hurt someone, even though that hurt is normally temporary and minor.

Please, everyone, place yourself in the officer’s shoes for a moment. You’re outnumbered 50 or 100 to one. The mob is angry. They’re throwing rocks and bottles at you. You have no way of knowing who’s armed and who isn’t. Cops get shot and killed almost every day. These folks are breaking the law. They will not listen to reason, or your commands to move out of the street. And they start pushing back. Harder and harder. Any sign of hesitation and weakness on your part and they push even harder.

City Press Image

Or, protesters have filled the lobby of your bank and won’t leave, turning your customers away. Hundreds of them have camped out on your property, using your shrubbery as a bathroom.

City Press image

They litter the ground with waste and feces. Tents fill your once beautiful landscape. Your friends and family can no longer visit. Generators hum all day and night. Assaults and rapes take place during the dark hours. And the protesters will not leave, so you call the police.

As a police officer, what would you do, tuck your tail and run? Certainly not. You do your job, using whatever it takes to enforce the law. I’m truly sorry Ms. Nichols got a face full of O.C. spray, but the officers didn’t know her. All they know in those mob-type situations is…

AP photo

…if walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it must be out to hurt me. After all, a little woman can be as violent as well as any big man. There’s no time in these situations to take a “who’s violent and who’s not” survey. So please, Occupy Folks, sit down and have a meeting. Discuss things. Iron out the details. And for goodness sake, use your heads. There’s got to be a better way. This plan is definitely not working.

* Ms. Nichols has been charged with three counts of interfering with a police officer.

Businesses in Oakland are suffering due to the Occupy movement – KFI radio image

* So far, the Occupy movement has cost cities in excess of $10 million ($6 million in NYC). And who’s footing those huge bills? Yep, the taxpayers. People whose backs are already breaking from the state of the economy.

Portland has shelled out approximately $100,000 just to fix damages caused to public parks by the Occupy protesters. Another $750,000 has been spent in police overtime.

* Top image – Huffington Post


35 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    Lee, nice post. I’m curious if you believe there’s a point at which an officer’s responsibilities transcend orders. I know in Israel they embed personal moral responsibility into training because they were on the bad end of good police just doing their job following orders.
    I would also observe that almost every middle class gain achieved in this country involved our gov defending the 1% with armed violence attacking unions and others who try to empower the 99 – so, sadly, why should this time be any different?

  2. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Kathryn – Arrests, in fact, the majority of arrests, take place every day without any force used at all (you don’t see this on TV and YouTube because there’s action or excitement). But those occur because the offenders do not resist the arrest. No resistance = no pepper spray, no Tasers, no pain compliance, etc.

    You can only say “pretty please” so many times before being forced to move to the next level that’s needed to gain control of people who’re breaking the law.

  3. Kathryn Lilley
    Kathryn Lilley says:

    I wish the police had resolved the situation without using pepper spray. Kamran Loghman, who helped develop pepper spray as a chemical weapon for the FBI in the 80’s, has condemned its use at UC Davis. Here’s a NY Times article about the issue:

    The LAPD is going to clear the Occupy LA movement from City Hall tomorrow morning (Monday). I hope it is handled peacefully and without the use of chemical or other weapons. Thus far, LA has been an oasis of peace compared to the other Occupy sites. The protesters have worked hard to stay on amicable terms with city officials, including police. When people are arrested, it’s done nonviolently. It can be done!

  4. Kathy Crouch
    Kathy Crouch says:

    Hey Lee, thanks for the other side of the picture. None of the newscasts I have seen mention all the damage and other things. It would be scary to be outnumbered as the police were. It is okay to protest but don’t turn into a mob. Mobs only create more problems and more distrust. It can turn people against you not what you are protesting.

  5. Jack Ewing
    Jack Ewing says:

    The Occupy protests place the police in an impossible position, and maybe that’s part of the intent of the movement: to force people to decide where they stand and to what extent they will defend those beliefs. On the one hand, the police are charged with upholding the law. On the other hand, the protesters are demonstrating for the rights of ordinary citizens (those not in the privileged top 1 or 2 percent in income), which includes such union members as firefighters, teachers–and law enforcement officers. What’s a policeman to do? If you sympathize and don’t take appropriate action, you could lose your job. And if you do what you’re supposed to, regardless of your personal stance, you can come off like a thug. The situation reminds me of the antiwar protests of the 1960s when demonstrators confronted soldiers whom they wanted to keep from being killed or maimed in Vietnam, a murky war of dubious benefit. I feel that now, as then, the majority of the demonstrators are sincere in their desire to help change our nation for the better. In stumbling forward toward improvements, in attempting to reshape society for the advantage of all, it’s inevitable that the people will come into conflict with the forces of law and established order. When that happens, it’s important that law enforcement, in the process of carrying out their duties, not overreact and alienate those who, in this particular instance, ultimately hope to improve the lot of the police.

  6. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Well…I’ve been on the squirting end of a pepper spray canister and I’ve been in de-briefings after mob and protest events and I know how I felt and the feelings other officers expressed afterward. All I can do is relate those experiences and facts.

    Please don’t misunderstand my message above. There’s no shame in doing a job that needs to be done, as long as you do the job properly and in the manner you’re trained to do it. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to do it.

  7. Stressfactor
    Stressfactor says:

    P.S. also, the cop at UC-Davis didn’t look like he had an expression on his face of shame or “upset” over having to pepper spray the sitting protesters there. If anything he looked more self-satisfied.

    I do, however, think he did the right thing in pulling his men back and leaving rather than escalating the situation. In that case all more pepper spray was going to do was to enrage the rest of the group and there was too much chance that not only would officers get hurt but innocent bystanders might get hurt in the process.

  8. Stressfactor
    Stressfactor says:

    While maybe some people crossed a line I disagree about “legal” protest.

    Martin Luther King gave a speech, sure, but ordinary people were “occupying” lunch counters. Private property. There was no way to get a “legal permit” to protest a lunch counter. Picket on the sidewalk? Easy to ignore. A black man sitting down at a lunch counter stool next to a white guy? Harder to ignore.

    Sometimes if you want people in the glass towers to listen to you you have to take it to the glass towers because it’s all too easy for those with the resources to go by without ever getting near a real protestor.

    Sometimes if you get the “legal permits” all you let your opposition know is what YOU plan to do and what they can do to avoid you or sabotage you.

  9. Wil A. Emerson
    Wil A. Emerson says:

    Pepper Spray….mild compared to what would be done in other countries. These people are breaking laws, disrupting the rights and freedom of everyone. They put law officers in jeopardy and take advantage of citizens who respect the law. Too bad we don’t have more jails but they could be hauled off like the cattle they are and put in a stadium, arena, barn. Are they going to pay back the businesses who have lost income (money to feed their families, send their kids to school and pay taxes)or pay fines for disrupting peace and order? Of course, not—they are leaches who are not civil nor intelligent…A bunch of rogue complainers, senseless drop-outs, who are unproductive and do not contribute to society. If they want changes, pay attention to who they vote for, get involved in local government, quit asking for handouts…take advantage of educational opportunities, go to counseling if they’ve had the misfortune of rotten parenting, get off their lazy arses and get a job. Whiners and complainers are a drag on society. If they break the laws, they should be pepper sprayed, water downed, put in jail and then given brooms and shovels to clean up their filth. No mercy from this side of the fence!

  10. Kathy Bennett
    Kathy Bennett says:

    Great post, Lee!

    Having worked in the riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict I can tell you wild and angry mobs are no fun to subdue.

    Unfortunately, here in L.A., our leaders are so concerned with avoiding confrontation and receiving bad PR, we are doing nothing.

    Well, that’s not exactly true. I just heard on the news today the City of Los Angeles is negotiating with the Occupy L.A. group and offering 10,000 feet of office space for a dollar a year and farm land ‘somewhere’ so they can grow their own food. No wonder the rest of the country thinks Californians, and in particular, folks in Los Angeles are nuts. What do we give the next group of protesters…the keys to City Hall?

  11. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Hi Toni – Thanks for stopping by and for your questions.

    1. The idea of the announcements are to, hopefully, encourage people to leave the area peacefully. Obviously, officers could not arrest every single person in the streets. There were simply too many protestors and not enough officers and jail space.

    Police officers do not announce what methods they plan to use when effecting an arrest. To do so would give the suspects time to plan a defense which would then cause the officers to step up the level of force needed.

    2. Yes, I’ve been sprayed several times, during training and accidentally in the field. It’s an unpleasant experience, especially the first time when you don’t know what to expect. But the effects don’t last long. Here’s a link to one of our WPA instructors (Andy Russell) taking a face full of pepper spray at our 2010 event in Jamestown, N.C. Author Samantha Kane had the pleasure of spraying Andy. Obviously, if we are willing to be sprayed for demonstration purposes, there’s no danger or permanent harm.

    3. Actually, states have laws in place requiring citizens to obey the commands of police officers. And those commands and directions supersede all traffic signs and signals. The way to protest an illegal arrest is in front of a judge, not by physically fighting a police officer.

    4. Officers do get angry and frustrated when protestors don’t obey their orders to disperse because they know that soon they’ll be forced to use use force on those who refuse to stop breaking the law. It is illegal to impede the flow of traffic in public streets and on public sidewalks. It is illegal to interrupt businesses by trespassing on the property (if you are asked to leave someone’s property and don’t, you are then trespassing).

    In your case, I really don’t know why the officer directed you to another route. Maybe there was a traffic accident, utility work, a house fire, someone shooting at passing motorists, a drug raid where gunfire was possible, a holiday parade was underway, or a herd of stampeding elephants was on the way. Whatever the reason, the officer is not required to stop what he’s doing (keeping you out of the path of the elephants) to explain why he directed you around the block. Sure, you could always call the precinct and ask. You could even find a legal and safe parking spot and walk back to the corner where the officer is stationed and shout out your question. I’m sure he’d be glad to explain his actions. Either way, the officer’s orders superseded all traffic signs and lights at the intersection, and you were required to obey his direction. To do otherwise could have resulted in a summons. Refusal to sign the summons could result in a handcuffed trip to the jail until you did sign.

  12. Rebekah
    Rebekah says:

    I took the Pepper Spray class at the Writer’s Police Academy 2010 and got to experience first hand the spraying of someone from an arm’s distance away, and the effects of pepper spray on me (in an enclosed tent I could leave at any time). I was instructed to aim for the face, specifically the eyes, just as you see the police in the videos. I fully agree that this is the safest and easiest way to disperse a crowd quickly. And, frankly, I’m surprised those protesters stuck around so long–my eyes were watering and I was hacking non-stop from the moment I got wind of the stuff.

    And yes, officers do know what it is like to be pepper sprayed. The young man I sprayed was a cadet, and part of his training was to show that he could continue to perform under duress. As such, after I sprayed him he went on to fight off some attackers and cuff a man resisting arrest, all while having his vision and breathing impaired. I was highly impressed. And he was fine, aside from red skin irritation, within ten minutes. See what you can learn from the WPA? (Insert commercial for Writer’s Police Academy here) 🙂

  13. Leah St. James
    Leah St. James says:

    Lee, thanks so much for posting. (I’m sharing on FB and Twitter.) I appreciate the comments from both sides of this issue, but it really helps to understand the perspective of the police officer.

  14. Toni
    Toni says:

    I’ve got a couple of questions.

    1) Lee, you say, “The message also clearly stated that those who didn’t comply would be arrested. There was plenty of advance notice regarding impending arrests if orders were not obeyed.” Did that message say anything about the use of pepper spray? (Of course, if circumstances changed from the time the announcement was made–more violence, and so on–naturally the officers would have to change their strategy.) As it is, it sounds as if the police said one thing, and did another. Maybe the protesters would have stuck around anyway, but maybe not.

    2) Have you ever been pepper sprayed? What does it feel like? Is it really not so bad, after it wears off? How long does it take to wear off? I have no basis of comparison, and would just as soon not make the experiment.

    3) A lot of the police officers shown seem to be angriest that the demonstrators aren’t obeying them? What exactly is the obligation of a citizen to obey a police officer IF the citizen doesn’t believe he or she is doing anything illegal. For example, the other day I was driving down the road and a police officer was in the road and waved me down a different street. I went without hesitation, but I have no idea why. Am I entitled to an explanation? If not at the moment, then later? Or am I just supposed obey unquestioningly?

  15. SZ
    SZ says:

    There is now a video of the the girl Liz Nichols stating she would have rather been tasered then sprayed. I don’t think so missy.

    To make matters worse, a lot of these protesters intend to all plead guilty and request a jury to tie up the system.

    They just really don’t get it.

  16. Diana
    Diana says:

    I don’t think the protesters are making a difference. They have gotten their point across and quite frankly, now I think they are making a nuisance of themselves to the detriment of the “ordinary”” taxpayer. My own grandson, at 16, is a protester here in Brisbane, Queensland (Aus) and I wish he were home. He dumped school two months before Grade 10 (Junior) and is leaving school without even the lowest qualification and is “into” civil disobedience – which includes protesting against greed. I am sure there are other ways for the protesters to work on change. The investors in the banks and big corporations are to blame for voting these enormous salaries and “bonus” payments to the CEOs. There is the option of writing millions of letters to financial institutions and government regulators which would be more effective than sitting in the street causing problems. I fully understand the police officer’s POV. They have an awful job.

  17. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Pepper spray is used because, while extememly uncomfortable, it is basically harmless. It doesn’t break bones or break the skin or bruise as can riot suppression tools of the past, i.e. nightsticks or bullets.

    If saying “pretty please with sugar on top,” would bring about compliance, that would be fine, but it does not.

  18. CJ
    CJ says:

    Quite frankly, it is long past time for these ‘protesters’ to clear out voluntarily or be cleared out via force. Many are committing all manner of crimes, destroying property, attacking cops, causing a health hazard by spreading diseases and waste, and the list goes on. How can anyone defend that?

    When people congregate in a mob and some do bad things, the ‘good’ people will suffer for the bad. Plain and simple. That’s life–one of the first lessons you learn in elementary school. If they have more to say, they should do so in a civilized manner. Although, most of them have no idea why the hell they are ‘protesting’, besides wanting free stuff from the rest of us.

  19. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Elizabeth – There are not enough officers in this country to arrest all these people. And jails are already over the brim with people who actually belong in jail. All anyone wants is for protesters to stop blocking walkways and sidewalks and parks, etc. Just protest legally. It’s that simple. Besides, can you imagine what it would do to the court systems to try every single one of the protestors who’d broken the law.

    Again, I ask why the police are at fault, when there’d be no police action if the protestors were protesting in a legal manner (not in the street, inside businesses, setting fires, blocking sidewalks and roadways and bridges). What gives them the right to infringe on our rights? Isn’t that one of the things they’re protesting, that the government is infringing on our rights ( I wholeheartedly agree with the occupiers on this one, by the way).

    Oh, it is extremely difficult to “haul away” a group of grown men and women who don’t want to be hauled away. To do so would almost certainly cause physical injury, sometimes severe, to both the protestors and/or the officers. Therefore, pepper spray is the least offensive means to move a group of people who refuse to move on their own. It’s a much better option to rinse your eyes and skin than it is to have to heal bumps and bruises.

  20. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    David – I’m not defending wrongdoing. I’m merely discussing the incidents in the post above and how they played out, nothing hypothetical and no other incidents. I can’t comment on the situations you describe because I know nothing about them. And I certainly don’t condone unjustified force of any kind.

    However, I do know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of in-coming rocks, bottles, fists, and an encroaching, threatening mob. It’s not a good feeling and, I’m sorry, I choose to go home at the end of the day, uninjured. And I doubt anyone who’s in that sort of position would simply stand there and do nothing. If so, they’re definitely in the wrong line of work. But, that’s why some people aren’t cut out to be cops or soldiers. Instead, some choose to chastise those folks for doing a job that, unfortunately, has to be done (the proper way, which unfortunately means sometimes having to squirt pepper spray or strike an offender with a baton). But…the people who consider police actions, no matter how unpleasant the actions (police officers are HUMAN. they don’t enjoy this stuff. it’s not fun.), certainly don’t mind calling the police station when it’s their own property that’s being damaged, or their car that’s been set on fire, or their bodies that have been injured. And those very same officers who they’d just cursed, spit on, and lobbed rocks at, are the officers who’ll come to their rescue…every time.

    Personally, I don’t understand how a reasonable person can defend the actions of the violent protestors who willfully break the law and expect everyone to look the other way while they burn and destroy private property, refuse to leave when ordered to do so, etc.

    Anyway, I’m sorry if I’ve written something that caused you to lose respect for me. But I’m not sorry for anything I’ve written. My article was about a specific topic, something I know about because I’ve been there and done that. Most of you have not.

  21. Elizabeth Bryant
    Elizabeth Bryant says:

    I appreciate your comments, Lee, BUT civil disobedience is hardly a new issue for law enforcement. I guess my question is why chose the pain option under the circumstances? why not simply arrest them?
    I wasn’t there and I haven’t even scene all the photos and film, but I have seen a number of shots of the pepper spray on people just sitting. Why not at least haul off the passive resisters instead of spraying them?
    To the extent that the protesters were trying to manipulate the system, it seems like the police played into their hands. For people in the vicinity of my age, I saw that and my knee-jerk reaction was a memory of Kent State and that whole horrible, ugly mess. And, for the most part, I am way on the side of law enforcement.

  22. David Spence
    David Spence says:

    Sorry, Lee. I just lost a lot of respect for you. You use isolated violent incidents/hypotheticals to justify blanket brute force tactics, which is disappointing. How about the vet who was nearly killed, Scott Olsen? And the people who tried to help him, were they so threatening trying to pick a bloody man with a head injury up that it was okay to toss a grenade at them? The police have gone way over the line a bunch of times in dealing with these protestors, and I just don’t get how anyone, past cop or otherwise, can defend that.

  23. Samantha Navarro
    Samantha Navarro says:

    I am going to re-post this, because I believe you stated the situation clearly. The idea of the movement is good, but when people start breaking the law, and trashing their own communities, they lose credibility and my support.

  24. Pat Marinelli
    Pat Marinelli says:

    I am so tired of seeing this on TV news. I feel for those poor LEOs who must defend against these crazy people. I have a friend who works in NYC and I wonder how she manages to get to work everyday thru these crowds.

    And the cost? I don’t want to think about it as a taxpayer. And the poor LEOs’ families who are doing without them home these days.

  25. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    In response to a comment someone posted to my FB page:

    First of all, let me say that I’m not disagreeing with the idea of making change. I do agree – the country is a bit out of control and getting worse every day, including big banks and our economy. However, I would appreciate it if you’d take a moment to consider a few points:

    1. There is no law stating protesters need a permit to protest. We all enjoy our freedom of speech, a right guaranteed to us and enforced by the police and the courts. But there are laws in place that require permits for where those protests can take place. It’s just a matter of common sense that protesters cannot be allowed to disrupt traffic and private enterprise in order to make their point. And to do so in the middle of public streets and inside private businesses and residences is just not practical. Besides, to do so endangers or harms everyone around them in some form or another.

    2. I know you’re quite passionate about the causes in which you believe. Again, I agree with some of them (I’m not a fan of unnecessary war, banks ripping us off, a government that’s too big with no real checks and balances, Big Brother-type operations, etc.), but I also know that laws are in place for a reason and if we break them we must suffer the consequences, no matter our reason(s) for doing so.

    Are you saying that you wouldn’t mind hundreds of uninvited strangers moving onto your property, pitching tents, using your garden and lawn as a bathroom, setting fire to your cars, and littering your yard with pound after pound of garbage, all because they don’t agree with your views and rules?

    How about your place of work…it’s okay with you if hundreds of angry people camp out there doing the same things as I listed above and, then forcing their way inside to “sit” and refuse to move after they’ve disrupted and endangered your business and everyone inside? How about tossing things through your glass windows, sending shards of glass flying around the helpless people inside. Is it okay for protesters to set fires outside and to the buildings because they don’t like how you’re running the operation?

    I say there needs to be an effort to organize the movement if they plan to gain any credibility. Right now, no matter how many good folks are involved, the group seems like a vigilante mob that’s totally out of control. The bad apples of the group exhibit less respect for people than the very people they’re protesting against.

  26. SZ
    SZ says:

    Grrrr Don’t get me started. The Bay area has a lot of homeless here. When they tore down the Oakland camp, one “protester” complained to the news they were taking down their home.

    Some of these people are serious, however it seems to be becoming hypocritical. The “99” percent are being largely effected by losing business and their tax dollars having to pay for unlawfulness.

    In Oakland they used flash bangs and tear gas. This too received criticism.

  27. Ellie
    Ellie says:

    It does get tiring to hear of citizens claiming the police were brutal. The police have no idea who is going to do what – especially in a crowd. (Just like we see in your “Friday’s Heroes” blogs)

  28. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I’m really sick of people breaking the law in the guise of a protest. I could say more, but I’ll stop with that.

  29. Ramona
    Ramona says:

    When watching video of these massive crowds pushing and shoving, what strikes me more than anything else is that it’s not the protesters who look frightened. It’s the police.

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