There Is a Difference Between Getting Sprayed With Pepper and Beaten With Stick

The New York Times has belatedly picked up the flag of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, with columnist Jim Dwyer arguing that the wanton pepper-spraying of a group of female demonstrators by an NYPD inspector was "like a punch in the face." It was! The only difference between the two, when you think about it, is that with the pepper-spray incident, no one got punched in the face.

It is obvious to anyone watching the widely distributed video of NYPD Inspector Anthony Bologna cruelly spraying a group of protesters who had been hemmed in by a mobile police barrier on Saturday that Bologna is a dick. It is even more apparent to anyone watching this other video, apparently taken the same day, of Bologna casually spraying random demonstrators in the street like he was training cats with a spray-bottle of water.

Many, many NYPD cops are dicks. The guys who shot Amadou Diallo are dicks. The ones who raped Abner Louima with a plunger are dicks. The ones who raped that drunk lady? Also dicks. The other one who raped that other lady at gunpoint? Total dick. What's more, NYPD cops—or any cops, really—do not tend to behave well in situations where they are tasked with managing the movements of a crowd of protesters. They often tend to do dickish things like don riot gear and beat the shit out of unarmed people with their billy clubs.

So—while Anthony Bologna was obviously behaving atrociously and almost certainly illegally, and while getting pepper sprayed is undoubtedly an extremely painful if temporary experience—let's not forget that, all things considered, it's probably preferable that the NYPD's dicks are out there pepper-spraying protesters rather than beating them with batons.

Dwyer makes exactly this point, although he doesn't realize it.

If a nightstick were substituted for pepper spray, a conventional weapon instead of an exotic one, the events on 12th Street would bear a strong resemblance to simple assault.

And, as the saying goes, if my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle. If Bologna had sprayed the crowd with bullets and not pepper spray, the events would bear a strong resemblance to murder. The point is that he did not, in fact use a conventional weapon. He used a weapon that delivers a brief and intense burst of incapacitating pain but no permanent or even long-lasting damage. These are different things. One is better than the other.

To equate them, and to elevate the pepper attack to the level of "police brutality," is defining brutality down. Bologna's conduct is inexcusable, but it was not a "violent burst of chaos," as MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell described it. When the cops attacked protesters with massive deployments of tear gas, rubber bullets, and sonic assault devices in Pittsburgh during the 2009 G20—that was a violent burst of chaos. When the 1968 Democratic National Convention—a scene from which is pictured above—descended into a "police riot," that was a violent burst of chaos. How much do you bet the guy in that picture wishes he were getting sprayed with a noxious liquid instead of beaten with wooden sticks?

Again, Bologna's behavior was awful, and it's good news that the NYPD is investigating his little pepper spree. But NYPD cops do a lot of really shitty things all the time, and all things considered, an isolated pepper-spray attack doesn't rank all that high.

[Image via AP]