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

9/11 put the final nail in the coffin of the previous protest-control regime. By the time of the Free Trade of the Americas anti-globalization protests in Miami broke out eight years ago this week, an entirely new model of taking on protests had emerged. People called it the Miami model. It was heavily militarized and very forceful. The police had armored personnel carriers.

This is what it looked like on the ground in Miami in 2003. Occupy protests have shown that variations on this unprecedented show of force have now become commonplace.

Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale, who has specialized in tracking police tactical changes, found that the the "broken windows" theory of policing, which was introduced to a national audience by this very magazine, has also had a major impact on protest policing. As we wrote in 1982, broken windows policing did not attempt to directly fight violent crime but rather the "sense that the street is disorderly, a source of distasteful, worrisome encounters."

As Vitale would put it, the theory "created a kind of moral imperative for the police to restore middle class values to the city's public spaces." When applied to protesters, the strategy has meant that any break with the NYPD's behavioral preferences could be grounds for swift arrest and/or physical violence. Vitale described how the theory has been applied to Occupy Wall Street:

Consider what has precipitated the vast majority of the disorderly conduct arrests in this movement: using a megaphone, writing on the sidewalk with chalk, marching in the street (and Brooklyn Bridge), standing in line at a bank to close an account (a financial boycott, in essence) and occupying a park after its closing. These are all peaceful forms of political expression. To the police, however, they are all disorderly conduct.

Add up all these changes in the training paradigms and outlooks of police departments and you have an entirely different kind of policing than we knew during the Reagan and Clinton years. Scholars identified this new approach's salient features in 2007, adopting the name "strategic incapacitation":

policing-protests.jpg

But now regular people are identifying this new approach's salient features as well. The large-scale deployment of video recording technologies combined with high-speed media diffusion channels have allowed everyone to see what only a tiny number did back in 2003 in Miami. They are seeing kids getting pepper sprayed and hundreds of protesters getting arrested. They're watching police throw flash grenades into groups of American citizens. These images are coming to them through the same Twitter accounts and Facebook updates that show them photos of their friends' new babies and the score of the USC game.

While it's easiest to note the incidents of police violence, the protesters' cameras also record what's *not* in the images. Authorities have long claimed that they were merely battling the "black bloc" of violent anarchists. But when you look at all these videos, the bogeyman isn't there.

Instead, it's a dozen scared kids and a police officer named John Pike spraying them in the face from three feet away. And while it's his finger pulling the trigger, the police system is what put him in the position to be standing in front of those students. I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn't become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it.

And while the kids may cough up blood and writhe in pain, what happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.


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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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