Let's stipulate that there are legitimate questions of how to balance the rights of peaceful protest against other people's rights to go about their normal lives, and the rights of institutions to have some control over their property and public spaces. Without knowing the whole background, I'll even assume for purposes of argument that the UC Davis authorities had legitimate reason to clear protestors from an area of campus -- and that if protestors wanted to stage a civil-disobedience resistance to that effort, they should have been prepared for the consequence of civil disobedience, which is arrest.
I can't see any legitimate basis for police action like what is shown here. Watch that first minute and think how we'd react if we saw it coming from some riot-control unit in China, or in Syria. The calm of the officer who walks up and in a leisurely way pepper-sprays unarmed and passive people right in the face? We'd think: this is what happens when authority is unaccountable and has lost any sense of human connection to a subject population. That's what I think here.
Less than two months ago, it seemed shocking when one NYPD officer cavalierly walked up to a group of female protestors and pepper-sprayed them in the eyes. The UC Davis pepper-sprayer doesn't slink away, as his NYPD counterpart did, but in every other way this is more coldly brutal. And by the way, when did we accept the idea that local police forces would always dress up in riot gear that used to be associated with storm troopers and dystopian sci-fi movies?
If you watch the whole clip, you see other police officers beginning to act "human" in various ways -- taking off their riot helmets, being restrained rather than unbridled in use of force, a few of them even looking abashed or frightened as they walk off.
This Occupy moment is not going to end any time soon. That is not just because of the underlying 99%-1% tensions but also because of police response of this sort -- and because there have been so many similar videos coming from cities across the country.
Update 2: Brian Nguyen, of the UC Davis student newspaper The Aggie, has posted a large Flickr collection of photos of the confrontation. With his permission, here are two samples: the policeman as he calmly pepper sprays the seated students, and the students with the burning orange spray still on their faces.
Update 3: Peter Moskos, son of the late, wonderful Charles Moskos and himself a one-time policeman who is now an academic, has an insightful short piece for The Washington Monthly on what the episode shows about police training, or lack of it.
Update 4: The police are apparently claiming, though I don't have a link at the moment [info here], that the policeman used the spray in self-defense and at a tense moment. Check out this immortal photo if you hear that claim. Now, Brian Nguyen's photos:
Update 5: A discussion at Hullabaloo about the chilling calmness of the policeman doing the spraying, and the resemblance of this case to a previous one involving cops who used Q-tips to paint pepper-spray directly onto the eyeballs of environmental activists in Humboldt County, California, in the late 1990s. Thanks to Iris Xie and Lois Quick for these leads.
Update 6: Again courtesy of Iris Xie, here is the [preposterous] statement of the UC Davis police chief, Annette Spicuzza, on why the officer "had" to use pepper spray:
The students were informed repeatedly ahead of time that if they didn't move, force would be used, she said. [Believable.]
"There was no way out of that circle," Spicuzza said. "They were cutting the officers off from their support. It's a very volatile situation." [Volatile, maybe. "No way out?" Donnez moi un break.]