Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike

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A regular guy named John Pike has become the new face of evil among people following the Occupy protests around the country. The UC Davis police officer's matter-of-fact pepper spraying of seated, obviously peaceful students has provoked justifiable outrage. James Fallows summed up the situation with his usual precise moral compass. "This is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population," he wrote. "That's what I think here."

Many are calling for Pike's firing, or worse. He certainly doesn't present a sympathetic figure. What kind of person could do this?

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Thinking about the outrage of friends and colleagues, a James Baldwin passage that I've read many times came back into my mind. Here's what he had to say in the New York Times about Jim Clark, an Alabama sheriff and staunch civil rights opponent whose state troopers viciously attacked peaceful protesters.

[Clark] cannot be dismissed as a total monster; I am sure he loves his wife and children and likes to get drunk. One has to assume that he is a man like me... Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman's breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.

Baldwin recognized that Clark was merely the endpoint of a system that shaped the sheriff just as it shaped the people the sheriff attacked.

Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. Our police forces have enshrined a paradigm of protest policing that turns local cops into paramilitary forces. Let's not pretend that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.

That these changes in the police force have occurred is not in dispute. They've been sufficiently open that academics can write long papers detailing the changes in police responses to protests from the middle of the 20th century to today. They are described in one July 2011 paper by sociologist Patrick Gillham called, "Securitizing America." During the 1960s, police used what was called "escalated force" to stop protesters.

"Police sought to maintain law and order often trampling on protesters' First Amendment rights, and frequently resorted to mass and unprovoked arrests and the overwhelming and indiscriminate use of force," Gillham writes and TV footage from the time attests. This was the water cannon stage of police response to protest.

But by the 1970s, that version of crowd control had given rise to all sorts of problems and various departments went in "search for an alternative approach." What they landed on was a paradigm called "negotiated management." Police forces, by and large, cooperated with protesters who were willing to give major concessions on when and where they'd march or demonstrate. "Police used as little force as necessary to protect people and property and used arrests only symbolically at the request of activists or as a last resort and only against those breaking the law," Gillham writes.

That relatively cozy relationship between police and protesters was an uneasy compromise that was often tested by small groups of "transgressive" protesters who refused to cooperate with authorities. They often used decentralized leadership structures that were difficult to infiltrate, co-opt, or even talk with. Still, they seemed like small potatoes.

Then came the massive and much-disputed 1999 WTO protests. Negotiated management was seen to have totally failed and it cost the police chief his job and helped knock the mayor from office. "It can be reasonably argued that these protests, and the experiences of the Seattle Police Department in trying to manage them, have had a more profound effect on modern policing than any other single event prior to 9/11," former Chicago police officer and Western Illinois professor Todd Lough argued.

No one wanted to be Seattle and police departments around the country began to change. "In Chicago for example, paramilitary gear such as that worn by the Seattle Police was quickly acquired and distributed to officers," Lough continued, "and the use of force policy was amended to allow for the pepper spraying of passive resistors under certain circumstances." (That emphasis is mine.)

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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