Mar 1 2000

Pepper Spray Gets in Their Eyes

Media missed militarization of police work in Seattle

Seattle police spray protesters (Steve Kaiser/Wikimedia)

Seattle police pepper-spraying demonstrators at the 1999 WTO protests (cc photo Steve Kaiser/Wikimedia)

The WTO protests in Seattle may be remembered as the time when the words “pepper spray” first entered the vocabulary of the American public. From November 30 through December 3, as police took on demonstrators outside the World Trade Organization meeting at the Seattle Convention Center, you couldn’t turn on a TV or open a newspaper without hearing how officers were using “tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray” to disperse crowds of protesters.

And unless you scoured the news media, that’s all you heard. While comparisons to the “turbulent 1960s” abounded, the media imposed a near-total blackout on a news story far more notable than a few broken store windows: the unprecedented indiscriminate use of military weaponry on a peaceful population.

Over the first two days of the WTO protests, police clad in riot gear routinely shot pain-inducing pepper spray into the eyes of nonviolent protesters, fired rubber- and plastic-jacketed bullets at close range into crowds, and charged peaceful demonstrators with armored vehicles–all in front of hundreds of TV news cameras and assembled journalists. One clip, of a heavily armored officer kicking a man in the groin, then shooting him in the chest point-blank with a nonlethal “beanbag” gun, aired on several networks. Yet reporters expressed minimal concern about these tactics.

One reason is that the media overwhelmingly held to the belief that the police were subduing violent looters. “As tens of thousands marched through downtown Seattle, a small group of self-described anarchists smashed windows and vandalized stores,” CNN‘s Greg Lefevre (12/1/99) reported. “Police responded with rubber bullets and pepper gas.” In fact, numerous eyewitness reports would describe police ignoring vandals while busily assaulting demonstrators who were blockading the entrance to the WTO. The Seattle Times, in its timeline of the WTO protests (12/5/99), noted the first use of pepper spray and rubber bullets on demonstrators at 10 a.m. on November 30, nearly two hours before the first windows were broken.

Still, most news outlets ignored the police assaults that preceded the looting, preferring to believe that it was the acts of a few out-of-control protesters that led to the violence, and downplaying police use of force. “Some of the more radical elements turned the protests into street battles,” said Dan Rather, referring to the anarchists, not the police (CBS, 11/30/99). “How Organized Anarchists Led Seattle into Chaos,” echoed Time (12/13/99), while U.S. News & World Report (12/13/99) wrote of how “after the worst vandalism Tuesday,” police “broke out tear gas.” Even Seattle’s KIRO-TV, which drew praise for its on-the-scene coverage of the protests, described police as “working overtime to protect this city” as it showed citizens buying coffee for cops (Deep Dish, 12/7/99).

Chemical weapon

Eye wash, Seattle protests (cc photo: Steve Kaiser)

Washing out inflamed eyes at the Seattle WTO protests (cc photo: Steve Kaiser)

“In terms of scale, this breaks new ground in the U.S.,” says Terry Allen, a journalist who has reported extensively on the police use of pepper spray. “Now, you go to Korea, and this is like kid stuff.”

Pepper spray (in police jargon “OC,” for its Latin name of oleoresin capsicum), an oil derived from cayenne peppers, is classified as a chemical weapon, and as such banned for use in war–but not in domestic police work. Pepper spray was introduced to the U.S. in the 1980s by the Postal Service, which used it as a dog repellent. Thereafter, it was quickly adopted by corrections officers and police departments, which adopted it primarily for use in incapacitating violent suspects; the FBI proclaimed pepper spray its “official chemical agent” in 1987. (Helping push OC’s use was FBI Special Agent Thomas Ward, who later pleaded guilty to accepting a $57,500 kickback from a pepper spray company.) It’s quickly become a common part of the police arsenal: Rikers Island guards have used pepper spray or mace on inmates 1,500 times over the last three and a half years, according to the New York Times (11/8/99).

The pepper spray used by police is highly concentrated–300 times as strong as jalapeño peppers, and five times as strong as the pepper-spray mixture sold for self-defense to the public. When sprayed directly in the eyes, as was done on countless occasions by Seattle police wielding fire-extinguisher-like dispensers, it can create intense, burning pain and restricted breathing unless quickly flushed out. (The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in fact, requires commercially sold pepper spray to carry a caution label: “Warning: irritant, avoid contact with eyes.”)

Steven Christianson, who was sprayed by Burlington, Vermont, police during an anti-war protest in 1998, recalled the effects of pepper spray to the Vermont Rutland Herald (2/22/98): “I felt this incredible burning, loss of breath, from the time the cop stuck the spray in my face until 45 minutes later, everything is a blank, just excruciating pain. I have no recollections. All that went through my mind was pain.”

In fact, more than 100 people in the U.S. have died in police custody after having pepper spray used on them, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (Vermont Rutland Herald, 2/22/98). This statistic should have come as no surprise to the mainstream media: The first major report on deaths involving pepper spray appeared in 1995, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times (6/10/95). To its credit, the L.A. Times (12/3/99) was one of the few newspapers to provide a detailed report on the police assault on the Seattle neighborhood of Capitol Hill the night of December 1, describing how “residents told of being chased down side streets and pepper sprayed and of being tear gassed in their own yards.” But like other papers, the Times didn’t discuss the health dangers of indiscriminate spraying.

Cruel and unusual?

Victim of pepper spray, Seattle WTO protests (cc photo: Steve Kaiser)

Victim of pepper spray, Seattle WTO protests (cc photo: Steve Kaiser)

Likewise, while several media outlets at least mentioned the free-speech implications of the “no-protest zone” put in place by Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, there was little discussion of the constitutionality of the use of extreme force on peaceful protesters. “Use of pepper spray prior to arrest and then failure to provide medical treatment afterward [can be said to] be objectively unreasonable, excessive force under both the Fourth and Eighth Amendments,” according to police misconduct expert Lynne Wilson (Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report, 3-4/97). The Southern California ACLU has condemned the use of pepper spray “to impose a painful chemical ‘street justice’ without resort to criminal charges or the courts.” (L.A. Times, 6/18/95)

Instead, reporters largely echoed the complaints of police that the only problem with their behavior was that it was too restrained. In the San Francisco Chronicle (12/2/99), staff writer Robert Collier wrote: “In police academy textbooks for years to come, Example A of how to botch the job of crowd control will probably be Seattle 1999.” Why? Because, according to Collier, the “chaotic street protests and vandalism seemed to catch city authorities by surprise, leaving them helpless.”

Newsweek criticized Seattle’s mayor and police chief for “fail[ing] to give their undermanned police force enough backup until it was way too late,” while in the Boston Globe (12/3/99), Lynda Gorov wrote that “police and the city were caught unprepared” for the “self-declared anarchists” who “came ready to rumble.”

In fact, it was the police who came ready to rumble. On the public access network Deep Dish Television, reporters were shown specially designed batons with flat edges, the better to cause pain and injury, that were issued to Seattle police. Meanwhile, the police had ordered a fresh supply of $20,000 worth of pepper spray–augmented, after supplies started running low, by a raid on the stores of neighboring police departments, the King County Jail, and the Department of Corrections, while a police captain flew to Casper, Wyo., to pick up a stock of gas from federal agents. As the mayor bragged, “We’ve given them ‘RoboCop’ material.” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12/4/99)

Peter Cassidy, a police tactics researcher who is working on a book about the militarization of American life, notes that “it was interesting that you saw the National Guard and the police side-by-side doing the same jobs, wearing almost exactly the same uniforms.” Also new to Cassidy was the use of “SAP gloves,” designer leather gloves with buckshot sewn into them, “so you can whap someone across the face and do more damage than you do with your knuckles.”

Invisible brutality

Riot police, Seattle (cc photo: Steve Kaiser)

Seattle police in military-style riot gear (cc photo: Steve Kaiser)

You generally had to turn to the alternative, college and international press for in-depth reporting of police treatment of protesters. The University of Colorado’s Colorado Daily (12/4/99) reported at week’s end that “hundreds of arrested protesters have been denied food, water, medical attention and legal representation, while others have reportedly been sprayed in the face with pepper spray as they sat in jail cells, shackled with both hand cuffs and leg irons.” Agence Presse France (12/4/99), meanwhile, interviewed Direct Action Network spokesperson Karen Coulter, who reported that “Our legal team has gone in and found out that beatings in detention were severe, and there has been repeated use of pepper spray in detention.”

Brutality against detainees was reported widely by the Independent Media Center ( and other independent outlets by the end of the WTO meetings, but virtually invisible in the mainstream press, which by then had moved on to comparisons with “anarchist outbreaks” in Eugene, Oregon (New York Times, 12/3/99), and shopkeepers’ reactions as “for the first time in several days residents trickled in for holiday shopping” (Washington Post, 12/4/99).

“The problem was, the cops were trained by the federal government to believe they needed to approach this as a military operation,” says Cassidy, “and then when people started breaking things, there was no manpower left over to just act like police.”

Cassidy worries that the lack of concern over the Seattle police behavior “will lend credibility for other police departments to do the same thing.” Which would mean that “opening your mouth becomes something that exposes you to danger. It exposes you to militarized forms of law enforcement.”