Albion Monitor /Commentary

Pepper Spray and Goon Squads

by Alexander Cockburn

Cops will always push things as far as they feel it's safe to go -- and then push a little further
It's an eerie feeling, living up in Humboldt County, Calif., as I do, to read local papers such as the Humboldt Beacon and find polite letters to the editor saying that it was just fine for the Sheriff's Department to daub pepper spray on the eyes of young women who were demonstrating in Rep. Frank Riggs' office.

These, mind you, were letters from nice folk in the logging town of Fortuna, from women signing themselves as "Homemaker" and the like. It's hard to guess where these people would draw the line. Certainly, Humboldt deputies felt they were acting well short of the permissible frontiers of coercive action, since they were planning to use the footage of pepper-spray daubers as a training film.

Humboldt Sheriff Frank Lewis and Eureka Police Chief Ernie Milsap have since claimed the use of cotton swabs to apply the pepper spray on these women's eyes was not only cost effective but safe and somehow humane. The sotto voce theme here is that more or less anything that doesn't involve violent beating with a club is inherently virtuous and should be esteemed by the citizenry. Back in the 1950s, in the Algerian war, the French military authorities claimed that when it came to humane interrogation techniques, the clipping of wires from electric car batteries to the suspect's genitals was the way to go. Why, they'd cry indignantly, Gen. Massu had even tried it on himself, to make sure it was safe.

Those Humboldt cops felt they were operating with the full social sanction of the people who mattered. In this calculation, they were correct in assuming the Board of Supervisors wouldn't make a stink, the legal establishment would say nothing, and the local press would be similarly supportive.

Three years ago, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department forcibly cut the hair of three people being held after a demonstration in favor of saving Headwaters Forest (which the pepper-spray victims were also defending). The victims sued and won, to the great astonishment and indignation of the department, which felt that when it came to hippie long-hairs making trouble in Humboldt County, at least in the Eureka and Fortuna region, the police could do as they pleased.

Cops will always push things as far as they feel it's safe to go -- and then push a little further. Think of it in terms of the "broken window" theory of crime. This is the notion that a supposed "culture of crime" starts with minor infractions -- graffiti, turnstile jumping in the subway, vigorous panhandling -- which lower the social tone and encourage the perpetrators to advance to more violent activities like muggings, armed robberies and so forth. Ergo, prosecute turnstile jumpers vigorously, hound beggars mercilessly, give graffiti artists a hard time and in many and diverse ways harass the poor, thus fixing the "window."

Apply this paradigm to the police. It starts maybe with a cop faking a reason to stop and search a car. Next, we have cops beating the suspect in the precinct and telling a novice cop to write up the report, alleging falsely that the suspect "became violent and had to be subdued." Thus, the novice is integrated into the overall, lawless police culture and is soon lying his head off in court, knowing that the judge will take his word for it. Keep this up, amid manifestations of approval from elected officials, amid the deference or powerlessness of civilian review boards, and you get those deputies in Humboldt County blithely swabbing on pepper spray and cops in New York torturing Abner Louima with a broom handle.

There's plenty of evidence, across the country, that after years of grandstanding on crime by politicians, and the stimulus of TV shows like "America's Most Wanted," many police forces are out of control. You can find examples the length and breadth of the country. A couple of years ago in Mendocino County, police ran amok in Covelo in the wake of a shooting incident that left a deputy and a native American both dead. Houses were smashed up, and elderly people brutalized.

In Florida, on Nov. 19 of this year, officials from the Federal Communications Commission led a raid on the home of a man operating a low-watt radio station in the suburbs of Tampa. Some 20 armed men in an entity known as a Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force broke down the door of Doug Brewer's home, where he'd been operating The Party Pirate (102.1 FM) for the previous three years. The force confronting Brewer, his wife and their cat was composed of FCC agents, Customs agents, Federal marshals, a SWAT team and local police who were apparently embarrassed, since they knew and liked Brewer, whose radio had been helping in local Crime Watch activities.

After smashing their way in, the goon squad menaced the Brewers with their weapons and handcuffed them face down with gun muzzles in their ears. Then, they ransacked the house for 12 hours. Only after two hours did they display a search warrant for radio equipment, whose terms they had clearly transgressed. Brewer says he feels lucky to be alive.

Clearly, what with pepper-spray torture in Humboldt County, Louima's torture in New York and outrageous raids like that on the Brewers a fairly frequent occurrence, we have to see where the Broken Windows paradigm has taken us. Lawless cops, not lawless criminals, are the true indictment of a nation that has abandoned civilized standards.

© Creators Syndicate.

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Albion Monitor December 8, 1997 (

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