Protest In The Age Of YouTube… And The Long Term Consequences Of Focusing On 'Enforcement' To Deal With Moral Panics

from the and-don't-forget-the--militarization-of-the-police dept

By now, I expect that many of you have heard or seen the reports of police in riot gear pepper spraying students at UC Davis late last week. If you haven’t seen one of the many, many videos of the incident out there, this one is particularly popular and has a pretty good view of the police officer walking up and down the line of peaceful protesters with their arms locked, spraying them heavily with pepper spray:

However, there appear to be dozens of other videos capturing the same thing from a variety of different angles. I just watched about a half dozen of them, and each one provides a little more insight or perspective into what happened. None of them make the police look good. This and other recent incidents of police pepper spraying protesters raise a few different issues (regardless of what you think of what people are protesting for). Let’s discuss two of them quickly.

First, it’s fascinating to see how protest is changing in the age of YouTube. In the past, photographs often captured iconic moments in similar situations. Or, in some cases, merely the stories of what happened. And while there can be something powerful and moving about a still photograph, the video of these latest incidents really lets you see the details, and I find such videos to be much more powerful in showing the full extent of what’s happening. It makes it that much harder to cover things up or try to explain away the actions of the police. We’ve talked about why the right to record police is an important right for Americans, but in situations like this, it also shows not just the value of recording what the police are doing, but also the power of bringing millions of people around the world right into the situation of what happened.

Related to that is the fact that such a large percentage of people these days now carry handheld video cameras, often in their mobile phones. That we don’t just get one angle on these stories, but coverage from pretty much every perspective, is really quite an incredible experience.

The other issue worth discussing is the long term unintended consequences of regulatory and legal battles against vague bogeymen without a thought to what happens. If you want to read a really fascinating opinion piece on what happened at Davis, you should read what Bob Ostertag had to say. Ostertag, among other things, is a professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at UC Davis, and his discussion is really fascinating — directly calling out the administration for its bogus defense of the pepper spraying (and comparing it to a similar situation that was handled quite peacefully at Columbia). He goes on to highlight other ridiculous overreactions first within the UC system (at nearby Berkeley) and then elsewhere in the country, such as the pepper spraying of an 84-year-old woman in Seattle.

One of the key points he uses to summarize all this is the following:

Last week, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper published an essay arguing that the current epidemic of police brutality is a reflection of the militarization (his word, not mine) of our urban police forces, the result of years of the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror.” Stamper was chief of police during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, and is not a voice that can be easily dismissed.

Stamper’s article is also a fascinating, yet disturbing read. He points to his own failings in 1999, but also how much worse things have become. He also points to some ideas for turning things around — creating radically different police forces, with civilian involvement.

Part of me wonders if these two issues converge. The ability of people to so widely document the abuses — and horrify the watching public — will hopefully lead people to seek out the sorts of “radical” solutions Stamper suggests (and, yes, I do recognize the ridiculousness of suggesting that police work closely with civilians is considered “radical”). But part of me wonders about the likelihood that things just get worse. We see this elsewhere, where “law enforcement” or the government through declaration or regulation declares “war” on something, rather than trying to understand and deal with the underlying issues. It never helps solve the problem, and oftentimes serves to make it that much worse. But oftentimes it seems like once the moral panics and the “war on…” announcements have been made, politicians and law enforcement become totally committed, unable to back down, even as their “solution” makes things worse.

It’s stories like these that should make us wary of jumping on any sort of moral panic that doesn’t involve a true look at the underlying causes, and how to fix them, but rather seeks solely a stricter “enforcement” solution. What we see, over and over again, is that that level of “enforcement” becomes a weapon that is used more and more regularly and more and more indiscriminately. Even as some amount of transparency hopefully counteracts some of it, people get so committed that the situation moves far away from solving problems, and just creates more and more new ones.

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Comments on “Protest In The Age Of YouTube… And The Long Term Consequences Of Focusing On 'Enforcement' To Deal With Moral Panics”

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TDR says:

…creating radically different police forces, with civilian involvement.

It’s C.O.P. – Citizens On Patrol!

Yes, that was a Police Academy 4 reference. Too bad there aren’t more cops like Mahoney, Jones, Hightower, Tackleberry, Callahan, Zed, and the rest. Zany as that crew is, they’re still a far sight better than some of the idiots in uniforn now.

out_of_the_blue says:

Uh, think I agree, except you don't condemn the police actions.

And “thoughtful” comment without taking a moral stance on clear mis-use of force is something to panic over.

SO TAKE A POSITION, MIKE: either for or against peaceful protest, and consequently against the police actions here.

Oh, I know what you’ll say after prompting, but you have to say it without prompting for it to carry any weight. So yet again, you’re just… vague and WAY too rational.

Besides, I don’t see where “moral panic” comes into this…

(2nd try…)

Anonymous Coward says:

After watching these “police officers'” behaviour (showboating with pepperspray with a ‘This is what you get for protesting’ attitude) I have to conclude they are idiots, what did they think would happen when they start aggressively attacking people quietly protesting?

A police officers badge may be a shield, but it’s so small it only works as one when people let it work as one. They are seriously lucky that the protesters showed such restraint.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

You have rights till someone in a uniform decides otherwise.
We are all for police taking a “criminal” down hard, until the “lawbreaker” looks like us.
We gladly accept what the talking head says, even if seeing video of the incident proves the talking head is lying.
We abdicate our outrage because we want the police to be evil pricks when they are protecting us, and snuggly puppies when they are not.

It does not work that way.

This is the result of our “leaders” turning the dial to 11 on every little thing and using our fear to control us further.
Many of our police are now much worse than those they are supposed to protect us against. They watch their “brothers” commit crimes and violate rights and hide behind the blue wall of silence. Its not cool to rat out another one of us. The Mafia (the real kind) have these kinds of rules about not squealing… The Mafia violate the law when it suits them… The Mafia have people who will lie about what the criminal was doing… What they sought to stop, they have become.

I am not saying all police are bad, but given the lies having been told by the Chief of UC Davis police about this incident being cause by the police being surrounded and afraid… I know bad police when I see them in action covering up the wrongs committed by their “brothers” in uniform.

Spicuzza said Friday that about 35 officers from UC Davis and other UC campuses as well as the city of Davis responded to the protest about 4 p.m., wearing protective gear.

Spicuzza said officers were forced to use pepper spray when students surrounded them. They used a sweeping motion on the group, per procedure, to avoid injury, she said.

“There was no way out of that circle,” Spicuzza said Friday. “They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.”

Except for the footage showing a cruiser behind them on the walkway with no students around cutting them off.

The first response is to show up in riot gear to deal with citizens, this does not end well for the citizens.

We need to demand better and get it.

Anonymous Coward says:

“War on terror”

HAH!! Terror is but a minor statistic, I highly doubt police are dealing with terrorists every day. Heck, crime (and especially crime with victims) has been declining since the eighties and itself has turned into but a minor statistic. Politicians try to make a huge deal out of what little crime there is to justify the passage of new legislation and to find something to grandstand over and the media eats it up like it’s an epidemic (if it bleeds, it leads).

“war on drugs”

and I have no sympathy for cops that over react due to their experience of going after victimless criminals.

Expanding the definition of crime to beyond what it should be to justify a larger police force, more government surveillance and involvement in our lives, and more police aggression does not seem to be a good measure how harmful the current state of crime is, what needs to be done to reduce crime, how successful the police are and it’s not a justification for more police aggression.

Anonymous Coward says:


I suppose we can take an economic approach and make a real GDP vs a nominal GDP comparison. We can discern between the real crime rate and the nominal crime rate. The real crime rate accounts for fluctuations in the definition of crime and defines the real crime rate to be what the crime rate would have been had the definition of crime remained the same. The nominal crime rate is the crime rate without accounting for fluctuations in the definition of crime.

Anonymous Coward says:


You see, when citizens have more balls than the police force that is a problem.

Those students are everything I would want to see in a police force.

They are like a wall, they take the abuse and stay there and don’t bulge no matter what, they did their job.

Instead you got these people that call themselves law enforcemnt with no empathy, that you can see take pleasure in hurting others, and they say that there is no problem, well we have a big problem, we have had it for some time and now maybe people start paying attention to those problems and do something.

There is no excuses one can make to justify that violence against people who did nothing to provoke that level of aggression, in the old days those cops wouldn’t be able to walk out of there in one piece, they would be hiding in their precincts until things calm down, it is a good thing that some have learned to be peaceful or they would have had more than just disciplinary action to deal with.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

I am reminded

I am reminded of the fable about the Grasshoppers and the Ants.

Anybody know this one?

In short: a scant few grasshoppers thru intimidation managed to successfully control thousands of ants–for awhile.

Then one day, the ants realized there were WAY more of them then there were grasshoppers, so they overpowered the grasshopper and ate them. (Or something like that.)

Seriously, the ‘average citizen’ is an ant, and sooner or later the grasshoppers are going to get eaten.

Still trying to preserve my anonymity says:

Many years ago (over 30)whilst working for an English local authority I wrote a report based on eyewitness statements (including my future girlfriend)of a riot in England. It was obvious the riot was caused by the police – they forced a large group of protesters into too small a space using their brand new riot shields (never been used before on the mainland i.e. not N Ireland). Part of it was a desire to test their training and use their new toys, it was the first in a series of riots across the area. The report was embargoed because it consistently showed who started the trouble – the establishment (even a left wing one) didn’t want to highlight what started the problem

Jay (profile) says:


There’s a lot of good articles about these problems. First, I looked at ZDNet in regards to this incident. They have a video of Chancellor Katehi’s LONG. SILENT. Walk to her car. I would recommend everyone look at that video and see what she has to face. A sea of students that just feel betrayed. She stood up for someone that could have done things for a better outcome of all. And yet, she didn’t get one boo, one jeer. She’s humiliated at the school because she released thugs on students.

Some websites I frequent, they actually believe this was the right thing to do. That in using pepper spray, it was the least violent (aka “non legal”) tactic to produce an outcome favorable to police.

At some point, you look at this rubbish and you wonder how people try to swallow it. The officer could have talked to them. The officer seems to treat them like roaches, callously showing off the bug spray in his hand, then allegedly bragged about this. If there’s anything wrong with this, too many people don’t understand that we’ve militarized the police as Ostertag has seen, as well as others such as Heather Parton.

I for one am glad for all of the individual reports of the police. They should be kept honest in what they do. You are giving them a responsibility to uphold the Constitution, which most of them seem to have forgotten what it means. They shirk their duties, instead trying to arrest everyone with no indication of what was done wrong. They arrest people for no ID and bully the public. Why do you think that people don’t trust the police? They’ve given us nothing to believe in while they go about their echo chamber, supporting a war on the Constitution mired in procedures.

Rekrul says:

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people at these protests started carrying pepper spray and using it on the cops.

Oh, but then they’d probably be charged with “Assault with a deadly weapon.” Yeah, cops do it to peaceful protesters, and it’s supposedly a justified and safe tactic, but if anyone ever sprayed a cop, the other cops and the DA would make them out to be public enemy #1.

ChrisB (profile) says:

I am reminded

Who is the grasshopper? The police? They are working stiffs like everyone else. Are you really advocating harming police officers?

I guess it must be different in the US. In Canada, we had the Vancouver riots and have yet to see anyone in jail. Tell you what, let’s switch cops for a while. You can have our calm polite cops and we’ll take your skull-crackers. I’m tired of dirty hippies smashing up small business owners stores, and pretending like they are “protesting” anything.

Frankly, we are all the 1%. 80% of the world lives on $10/day.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

I am reminded

Yeah, I am not sure if the mix up was intentional on Lobo’s part, but yeah that is aA Bug’s Life.

The real story of the Ant and the Grasshopper was about an ant who worked hard to store food during the summer months while the Grasshopper lived in the day and failed to plan for his future. Then when winter came the Grasshopper starved to death because he was unprepared.

I can honestly say that the OWS protesters resemble the grasshopper more than the ant.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:


Oh, but then they’d probably be charged with “Assault with a deadly weapon.” Yeah, cops do it to peaceful protesters, and it’s supposedly a justified and safe tactic, but if anyone ever sprayed a cop, the other cops and the DA would make them out to be public enemy #1.

IANAL, but I’ve received training in use of pepper spray. In California, it would be “battery on a police officer,” CA PC 243(b)2 which is considerably less than assault with a deadly weapon (to be ADW, it has to be able to cause serious injury, i.e. broken bones, or death. Pepper Spray is not capable of either, except in the extreme circumstances where the individual is allergic to pepper spray.) CA PC 243(b)2 is a wobbler, it can either be a misdemeanor or a felony. CA PC 245 (ADW) is always a felony.

However, I am in no way suggesting that protesters start doing so, as there is a principle in the law called escalation of force when related to law enforcement. Bringing pepper-spray to a gun fight is probably not the best method of winning a gun fight.

gorehound (profile) says:

Cops are still Pigs to me after a lifetime of going to Protests and stuff.My 1ST Protest was in 1969 and they are still a bunch of pigs.
Now I am just waiting till the wackos come out and start shooting at them.Soon it will happen.some wacko just shot a gun at the White House.Some wacko will do the same to a local Pig.

A pig is a pig is a pig……………. The Plasmatics

Anonymous Coward says:

I am reminded

They are not any working stiffs those are people who take pleasure beating others and have no courage, those are not people with brains or deserving of respect.

Are you defending the actions of those police officers?
It is ok to beat peaceful demonstrators now?
Them I am all for demonstrators to start harming police officers.

I’m sick and tired of those people, I do prefer those smelly hippies any day of the week.

btrussell (profile) says:

I am reminded

That is because our cops don’t know any of our laws.

I was just hit by a car a few weeks ago. I was traveling north, no stop sign, no traffic light, just a straight away with clear sailing in the bicycle lane. A car that raced from their stop sign, attempting to turn left onto main road I was on, hit me. Cop told me there were no witness’ so it was my word against hers, therefore, no one is charged. She was saying I hit her.

Pardon? How the fuck did that cop get a drivers license let alone a badge and a gun?

Even if I hit her behind her rear tire, she did not safely leave the stop sign. Just because you stop, does not mean you can automatically go.

She was later charged after I took pictures of me, my bike, her car, and the intersection where it happened to the police station.

War on drugs? I am about to hit the streets for some more pain killers as the Dr.s don’t seem to think that getting run down by a car is painful. Pain killers are easier to get on street than from Dr. 30 pills first week, 40 pills second week, none third week(I didn’t need or want any), coming into fourth week, I need them again but I guess I am just a drug addict. I hope I get the right ones off of the street and not something some prick made in his basement.

Oh! And after three visits to Emergency, one visit to medical clinic, not one referral to Physio. I am still swollen and numb. WTF does it take to get help here?

ltlw0lf (profile) says:


Yeah if sitting peacefully means they can use pepper-spray on protesters then if the protesters pepper-spray back the cops get to run them over with tanks.

Hey, I am not saying anything of the sort…I totally disagree with this use and if I was in this situation, I would have handled it differently. Escalation is only true when the use of force is lawful, and a point could be made by a protester that they used pepper spray in self-defense, which could be entirely legal use of force depending on how the courts interpreted the use of force by the police (the supreme court has, in the past, ruled both for and against the use of force against peaceful demonstrators — I am looking for the cites, believe Graham is for and Orcutt is against.)

It is just that the way the use of force laws exist based on law and on supreme court decisions, is force+1, a police officer may ratchet up the level of force by one in order to receive compliance during an arrest. And in some cases, +1 is pepper spray, then gun (since some police officers don’t have access to other resources.) Not saying it is right, just saying that it is what the law allows.

A tank against protesters, however, would likely fall afoul of US v Graham in this case as it is entirely unreasonable.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:


The comparison between UC Davis and Kent State is stark.

UC Davis protestors sat peacefully before being gassed.

Kent State had rioters, fires in streets, broken windows, bottles being thrown at cops, and the mayor declaring a state of emergency before the cops got out the tear gas.

Lt John Pike, you are like a little child who sees a parent dole out punishment for something severe, and then thinks that same punishment can be used by you for something trivial. Lt John Pike, your punishment ought to be pepper spray directly in your face once per day for as many days as people affected by your pepper spray. In addition, all the cops who stood there and watched you dole out the unnecessary punishment should be forced to stand by and watch you squirm without being able to offer help, or turn away or cover their ears as they hear your screams.

hothmonster says:


Pepper spraying people sitting on the ground with their arms locked is entirely unreasonable too though I don’t anyone involved will run afoul of anything, except some paid vacation and a public whack on the knuckles. They can make all the statements they want about them being frightened of the situation and surrounded but that all adds up to a giant pile of bullshit when you see the videos of them casually walking around while one officer strolls up and down the line spraying people, hell the videos even show cops stepping right over the line of protesters with no action against him.

I understand you are not defending it I am just saying they get away with what they want and every time they do get away with it they just get more dangerous. (Wow I was looking up articles about police departments buying tanks recently to point out its only a matter of time before they start using them on protesters and I found this ) Who watches the watchmen and all that jazz.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I understand you are not defending it I am just saying they get away with what they want and every time they do get away with it they just get more dangerous.

It sucks…I’ve had several friends agree with me when I say I’d take a tazer over pepper-spray any day. I prefer to experience neither, but if I was told I had to experience one or the other, I’d take the tazer. Pepper-spray is temporary, as is, usually, the effects of the tazer (if your heart doesn’t explode.) With one, you feel groggy and out of it after losing all muscle control, but it just isn’t the same as being clogged up and in pain for an hour.

I think the article by the Chief of Police for Seattle is a great one (in the article above.) We cannot keep fighting “wars” (drug war, etc.) where the politicians and the police expect us to give up our freedoms for temporary security over and over again without seeing the militarization. But one thing everyone seems to point to is that the police are getting more and more dangerous — what people fail to understand is that some elements of law enforcement have always been really bad, and that the police actually have become far more accountable and far more under control in the 20th century. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the police were actually the goons for the labor/anti-labor movements and several battles (legitimate, full on wars,) were fought between police forces (even though they were semi-legitimate private police forces) in the US History (, Nevermind the original Sheriffs in England were paid goons for the wealthy.

However, with the tank incident in Tampa, I am more apt to believe that it is just the Tampa Occupy Movement’s paranoia instead of actual threat. They are expecting something to happen (rightly or otherwise,) and as a result, they see threats where there are none (the article stated that police said the tank was on its way to an educational event.)

hothmonster says:


He said I wonder how long it takes for a Kent State to happen not that this was like Kent State. Surely its only a matter of time with the cops escalating things like this. Cops use pepper spray on non-violent protesters, someone in the crowd gets pissed and chucks a bottle at a cop, the cops start unloading into the crowd with their paintball and/or bean-bag guns, the crowd disperses briefly flips some cars in an adjacent lot, lights some shit on fire and now 3 times as many pissed off students are standing on the quad with the same trigger happy police force while the rest of the campus burns around them.

I agree with you that these protesters did not deserve what they got, but the next kids who protest will have seen this. They will be prepared for it and possibly prepared to retaliate and it will be a sad day for everybody. I think a lot of these police actions are still coming as a shock to the crowds and protesters, as you can see in the faces of many of the onlookers in the above video, but its only a matter of time before there are a group of kids ready for the cops to flip out so they can do the same or until the crowd decides that this is fucking out of line.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:


Sorry, I wasn’t trying to say they were the same either. I was trying to show how different the reactions were in both situations. Ignoring the shooting that happened a few days later, the Kent police only used tear gas after rioting and being attacked, whereas John Pike used pepper spray after a group of peaceful people refused to move. With John Pike around, I can’t imagine what would have happened had one of the protestor’s even showed a hint of throwing a bottle at him or starting a fire.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:


I hope people start buying Guy Fawkes masks with protections for the eyes and gas.

Having been hit by pepper spray…unless the Guy Fawkes mask includes a whole body condom/biomed suit and glass for the eye slits, a Guy Fawkes mask doesn’t offer any protection against O.C.

That stuff is like magma, it burns through every pore and opening, and even if you manage to protect your eyes (in training, they never told us to take our glasses off when they sprayed us (though they did have us remove contact lenses if we had them,) and those who wore glasses said they were hurt just as much as the rest of us. They sprayed O.C. on the face, and it got everywhere. We covered one of our eyes with our hands, but that didn’t matter — the stuff still got everywhere. I didn’t realize how many pores I had until I got sprayed the first time.

Friendly word of advice for those who get sprayed…when you take a shower afterwards, bend over so the water falls off your body and doesn’t run down it — and aloe/alcohol-based baby-wipes work wonders! Water just spreads the pain.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Uh, think I agree, except you don't condemn the police actions.

So, you must be too stupid to figure out what Mike’s beliefs are on this matter. Also, you contradict yourself.
First sentence you say “Clear mis-use of force”. Then, at the end, you say “I don’t see where moral panic comes into this”. Get it? Morality comes into play when government is over-stepping its bounds and mis-using force. The government has to be moral and must only act like that when absolutely necessary (not pepper-spray a group of students sitting on the ground)

FM Hilton (profile) says:

A shuddering comparision

The more I see this and other pictures of the incident, the more I remember a few photographs that inspired horror and shock when they were released.
They were hidden for many years, but some leaked out during the time.
Small groups of people being executed by the Nazis. Same attitude of the the killers, and the victims, prone on the ground.
Over the top? Perhaps. But putting the parallels together are too eerily similar to make them anything but discomforting.
Not Godwin’s law here-just a very disturbing idea.

Benefacio says:

RE: the video of these latest incidents really lets you see the details

I have watched the video age move from infancy to its present teen-age years and have to disagree with you Mike. Citizen journalism still follows the old saw ?If it Bleeds, It Leads? rule. Part of that, I think is that we seem to be trained to think of that sort of imagery as newsworthy and part, I know, is the simple technical limitations of video storage. I think it is plain silly to think this snippet, or ones like it, is ?showing the full extent of what?s happening?. Like all sound bites, I have learned to never take them at face value.

Michael says:

With every year comes newfangled law “enforcement” powers which bear an uncanny resemblance to Nazi Germany. Law enforcement agencies combining information and resources, overreaching domestic spying programs, TSA patdowns (which is tantamount to sexual assault), unwarranted searches, the militarization of the police, VIPER teams at bus stations/terminals, fusion centers, highway checkpoints, et al.

Everything that law enforcement agencies do is specifically designed to target, not protect, one group of people: Americans. The Constitution and Bill or Rights are being trampled by the traitors in uniform. Anybody who would treat ordinary citizens like criminals does not deserve respect, much less authority.

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