Less-lethal weapons are still weapons

Ella Henry - From College Hill to Parliament Hill (Tom Bateman/AQ)

Last week, students at the University of California Davis participating in an Occupy UC Davis protest were pepper sprayed in the face by a campus police officer.

The students weren’t only protesting the gross economic inequality that has been taken on by occupiers in cities across North America and around the world. Occupy UC Davis emerged in a context of increased student activism in California.

Since 2009, students have been pushing back against 30 per cent increases in tuition fees and the gutting of their public university system.

Twenty years ago, tuition fees at the UC Davis were around $2,000 – similar to tuition fees at St. Thomas University 20 years ago. This year, tuition fees at UC Davis top $13,000.

The University of California system is no stranger to student occupations, and in comparison to the series of student occupations of buildings over the past two years, a few tents in the quad was hardly extreme.

The student protesters were nonviolent, sitting on the ground in a circle. The pepper spray – pointed directly at students faces with the officer standing maybe a foot or two away – left several students in the hospital and others vomiting blood.

The pepper spray used by the police officer has never passed a health risk study, despite being used for years, and even if it had, the police officer used it at a much closer range than the manufacturer’s recommendation.

When I first saw the video of this, I asked myself: When does it become normal for police to respond with violence when confronted with non-violent protest on a university campus?

But I didn’t have to think for very long to realize that violence in response to non-violent student protest is as old as non-violent student protests.

From students active in the civil rights movement to the Kent State Massacre – where the national guard shot (and killed) four unarmed students protesting the American invasion of Cambodia – violent response to student protest is nothing new.

And neither is dismissing the violence as measured or necessary.

The trend of calling weapons “non-lethal” or “less lethal” is particularly disturbing, including pepper spray, water cannons, sound cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and tasers. From Tahrir square to Toronto to Athens to UC Davis they’re used to stifle dissent and protest.

The problem is less-lethal doesn’t mean not-lethal, and not-lethal doesn’t mean non-violent. From Germany to Egypt to the U.K. to Iraq to Canada, around the world, less-lethal weapons have, in recent years, resulted in death, eyes being torn out, and a lot of people in hospitals.

Many of the news reports on last week’s incident at UC Davis characterize it as a scuffle between protesters and police or as a back and forth of violence – even though video clearly shows protesters sitting on the ground, not in any way attacking police.

We’re living in a world where nonviolence is equated with not causing a disruption or inconveniencing anyone if you’re a protester.

But when it comes to police all that’s required to meet the standard of a peaceful and measured response are less-lethal weapons.

Universities have historically been spaces for debate and movements for social change.

And as continued protests at UC Davis after last week’s police violence have shown, that’s not about to change.