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On Pepper Spray and Smoke Screens

Posted by Rick · April 2nd, 2004 · No Comments

Two teenagers were beaten and pepper-sprayed by three guards in a California youth correctional facility. One was hit 28 times apparently while in a state of submission; the other was hit with a pepperball while offering no resistance. During an internal investigation — that is, the correctional institution investigated itself — which determined the guards used excessive force and then lied, the guards themselves refused to answer questions on the grounds that whatever they had to say might tend to incriminate them. In other words, if they told the truth, they would be inmates.

“I don’t think [the public] understand[s] the level of violence we deal with every day — the stress,” said Dave Darchuk, with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

It doesn’t take a brainiac to realize that this is irrelevant. But that appears to be the accepted approach of the government agents or officials whenever they get caught doing something they shouldn’t: hit specific citizens with pepper spray, the general public with a smoke-screen. (After all, it’s a tactic which has worked well for the Bush Administration. As one example, Paul O’Neill received the equivalent of a pepperball attack for revealing that the Bush Administration was planning a war on Iraq from the first day of his Presidency. Richard Clarke has received the equivalent of a pepperball attack after recent revelations he made about the Bush Administration’s focus on Iraq while ignoring real terroristic threats. The public gets a smoke-screen in the form of half-hearted “cooperation” with the President’s own 9/11 commission — “Condi” Rice is finally allowed to testify only after Bush feels heat from the public trying to cut through the smoke to deal with the fire. And if we believe Clarke about the requirements of that job, she will work hard to put a positive spin on things — or at least avoid the negative aspects — while testifying. But this is all grist for another blog entry, another day.)

Stress is a factor of everyday life: Road rage on crowded freeways, paying increasing amounts of one’s paycheck for gasoline to get to a job where fewer workers are picking up the slack for those who are laid off and whose work can’t be sent to offshore workers, dealing with long lines at the Walmart which “creates jobs” by displacing thousands of small businesses across the country and coming home to neighborhoods where “hot prowl” burglars, barking dogs and neighbors who broadcast their musical tastes via boom-boxes and tricked-out car stereos do violence to the nerves which find scant recovery in a short night’s sleep punctuated by lone motorcyclists trying to outrun themselves, high-pitched engines cutting through one’s dreams. Few people in the United States know life without stress.

Somehow, the majority of us resist the urge to beat helpless teenagers who are already lying face-down in submission to our pent-up frustrations.

The videotape of the beating, the guards’ union claims, only shows half the story. What they don’t say is that it shows the only half of the story that matters: Three guards beating and pepper-spraying two un-armed kids who were clearly offering no resistance. Whatever else happened in the course of the guards’ day is irrelevant. If the level of violence they’ve dealt with in other situations — if the stress they’ve had to endure on a daily basis justifies purgation by pummeling the bodies of wards in a youth correctional facility — then we might just as well stop locking people up.

Because if what these guards did is not a crime, then what is?

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