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On "Body Handles" & Occupy Reality

The recent incident of an officer casually deploying his jet of chemically propelled liquid pain into the eyes of peacefully seated students— like he was taking a stroll around the park with his pet duck on a string—prompted a question.

It was sickening, and harrowing to see. But was he not following standard procedure?

The Washington Post blog writes, "Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department’s use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a “compliance tool” that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters. “When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them,” Kelly said. “Bodies don’t have handles on them.”

(Bodies don't have handles on them. Lieutenant? He and I haven't hugged lately, because I've got handles.)

Essentially, Kelly is saying it's inconvenient that human beings aren't inanimate objects they can pick up and move around at will. Instead, police are going to apply pain to make us move. That way they won't be liable for damages incurred during shipping. People will hurt their own damn selves.

Kelly went on to say that two actions during the UC Davis peaceful protest do classify as resistance: a woman pulling her arm away from the police and a protester curling into a ball. In his words, these acts of resistance "could have warranted more force, including baton strikes and pressure-point techniques."


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I had no idea what passes for standard policy in police use of force. I thought rolling into a ball was the apex of passivity when faced with a threat. Ask any underground insect. But to a policeman it means, "Now you can hit me with your big stick."

I have to laugh as various police PR people insist that pepper spray doesn't actually hurt anyone. It’s a harmless way to gain compliance. Emotional trauma, central nervous system shock, pain and chemical exposure are not harmful. (Brush it off, pansies!) Being hit with a wooden baton or violated by an armed man applying "pressure points" to vulnerable places (like your jaw) is just discomforting.

What they mean is that it’s good torture technique: cause urgent, overwhelming pain and distress without leaving permanent marks as evidence that can be brought to a court of law. They won't be liable for it, so it's not real.

I kind of got a clue during Hurricane Katrina. Policemen shot people point-blank (with bullets, not pepper spray) for trying to cross to dry ground. Officers were under orders to shoot to kill anyone caught scavenging food and water--um, I meant looting. The point is, the protection of (poor) human lives was officially secondary to guarding (wealthy) private property.

Now that this fact is resolving and surfacing more clearly for Americans participating in the OWS movement, I want us to exploit the moment. The property that the police are protecting isn't physical. It's an entire conceptual system that arches inclusively over every articulated oppression. The property being protected is the system of oppressions that keep inequality in place. That property is invaluable, for without it the 1% has no power.

These are standard operating procedures, and they need to change, sir, stat.

Abe Louise Young

Abe Louise Young is a writer, teacher, and lifelong activist. Her book, Queer Youth Advice for Educators: How to Respect and Protect Your Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Students, was published in July by Next Generation Press.

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