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Pepper-spray stories revive sting of his tear-gassing

It was a different college campus and a different set of political issues. But the officer's nonchalance was the same.

May 30, 2012|Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Nnaemeka Alozie gets hosed off after being pepper sprayed outside the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees meeting.
Nnaemeka Alozie gets hosed off after being pepper sprayed outside the Santa… (Michael Yanow )

Last month, pepper spray was in the news again.

On April 3, about 30 people protesting a proposed two-tier tuition system at Santa Monica College were pepper-sprayed, sending two people to the hospital. The incident came five months after a campus police officer at UC Davis used pepper spray to break up an Occupy protest.

A task force investigating the UC Davis case released a report on April 11 that assigned blame to all levels of the administration, prompting the school's police chief to resign. A separate investigative report concluded that although batons and pepper spray are not outlawed for campus police, such weapons should be used only as a last resort when safety is at stake.

Both cases triggered national outrage after videos of the incidents were posted online. In fact, a series of pepper-spray incidents across the country made the eye-stinging chemical look like the weapon of choice to put down student protests — generating debate over health concerns, police policy and school culpability.

I would not downplay the seriousness of any of these incidents.

Still, I offer solace to the students.

Yes, you experienced an unpleasant, even traumatic event. But you have gained something that could pay dividends for decades. You have gained a story, a kind of social-upheaval war story, that you will be telling and retelling in years to come.

This I know because I have a similar story from a sunny day at UC Berkeley in the spring of 1969 when an Alameda County sheriff's deputy, with the same nonchalance as that UC Davis police officer, blasted me with tear gas.

There had been an anti-war demonstration that morning on campus. I lived on the north side; the protesters were mostly on the south side, near Telegraph Avenue, Sather Gate and People's Park.

By the time I ventured out, the rally had been over for hours. The helicopters were gone. So were most of the law enforcement personnel. The protesters had gone wherever protesters go after a demonstration (for the answer, check James Jones' book about the 1968 Paris protests, "The Merry Month of May").

As I remember it, the protest was one of the smaller ones of that spring: more student anger against the Vietnam War, in which the rallying cry was, "Hell no, we won't go." The protests over People's Park, in which one person was killed, another blinded, were still weeks away.

It was a spring in which everybody — the protesters, law enforcement, even the academics who served in the university administration — seemed to be spoiling for a fight.

I was not a protester, more a spectator watching on the fringes (a journalist without portfolio). That spring my main focus was my senior thesis, an explication of Walt Whitman's post-Civil War essay "Democratic Vistas."

I was clean-shaven and my hair was medium length, well above my collar. I went to the corner pharmacy for a tube of toothpaste around 4 p.m. I bought my toothpaste and was only a few steps out of the pharmacy when a sheriff's car drove slowly past. I hadn't done anything except walk out of a store to head back to my apartment.

I glanced over at the sheriff's car. A deputy in the passenger's seat — with a smirk on his face if I remember correctly — pointed his spray gun at me and suddenly a chemical cloud came blasting my way. I was the only one in the area.

My eyes immediately began to water and burn. My face was hot, as if a thousand needles were poking me. My lungs ached. I staggered to my apartment two blocks away.

Fresh water would not stop the burning. There was no wiping away the pain on my face. I was in misery. It never occurred to me to call the authorities or the local newspaper — this was the 1960s and one more Berkeley undergraduate being tear-gassed was not news.

I have no idea why the deputy gassed me. Maybe he was a Vietnam veteran angry at the draft-deferred students. Maybe he was just mean. Decades later, in a wholly different context, I learned that most misuse of weaponry occurs after the true battle has either ended or is close to ending.

All I could do was take the night off from my studies and remain flat on my back, a cool towel on my face. In the morning, although still groggy, I was back in the academic fray in my favored spot at Bancroft Library.

My story lay dormant for a long time. I started telling it only when my sons got to high school, a sort of "that's how things were in those days and I was there."

Social media, of course, have changed the world. The image of that UC Davis officer casually dousing the heads of peaceful protesters with military-grade pepper spray whipped quickly around the globe — deeply embarrassing the university.

If my little episode occurred today, doubtless somebody would have captured it on a cellphone camera and posted it to YouTube.

A picture of me in full chemical distress, and the deputy smiling with pleasure, might have found its way to a poster on dormitory walls; it's an honor I'm glad to have missed. Social media can bring important issues to light but they can also elevate things far beyond their true significance.

The UC Davis and Santa Monica students will have to find their own moral to their story. I counsel them to stay close to the facts; spouses and offspring are skilled at detecting embellishment or grandiosity.

I think occasionally about Whitman's essay on American democracy and his belief in the "swarms of alert, turbulent, good-natured, independent citizens" of this unruly country.

But there are other times when I think of that sheriff's deputy and the tube of toothpaste I dropped on the sidewalk.

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