Dear City Council Members and Mayor Katz,
Over the past week the Portland police have used pepper spray against anti-war protestors on an almost daily basis. This is not the first time that the police have used such chemical weapons. At the rally to protest George Bush this past summer, the police pepper sprayed several small children. The question that Mayor Katz and the City Commissioners need to ask themselves is whether the use of this particular weapon is appropriate and justified against peaceful protestors.
Many people may be under the impression that pepper spray causes a minor momentary irritation of the skin. This is not the case. Having been the victim of a police pepper spray attack on March 25, I can attest to the searing pain that I experienced even twelve hours afterwards. While the chemicals only touched my hand, it felt like someone had taken a piece of cut glass and was tearing my skin off. I also witnessed several young women who had been sprayed in the eyes. Mucous streamed from their noses and mouths as their bodies reacted in convulsions to the shock of the poisonous chemicals. Their eyes were glued shut, their teeth clenched from the excruciating pain. They screamed in anguish as volunteer medics attended to them; the police stood by in riot gear and watched the pain they had just caused. Firemen arrived, and unlike the police, offered medical aid to the women. One of the women went into shock, her body violently convulsing after the trauma of the attack; she had to be taken away in an ambulance.
When I called the Mayor?s office, the spokesperson told me that the Mayor supports the use of pepper spray for crowd control. During the incident that occurred on Tuesday on SW 3rd St. and Washington, no one had taken over the street, no one had threatened an officer, no one had even jay walked. A bicycle police officer reached in to grab a woman off of the sidewalk and arrest her, thereby blocking the path to a group of protestors who were walking across the street in compliance with the traffic light. At that point police indiscriminately sprayed a large crowd on the sidewalk and in the crosswalk. None of the people sprayed were breaking the law, none were charged, and yet all of us suffered from this egregious and dangerous assault.
Of the many forms of crowd control, pepper spray is one of the most insidious because it cannot be focused and therefore inevitably causes a great deal of "collateral damage," because its effects last several hours, and because it causes intense pain. Several television news camera people have been pepper sprayed as well, suggesting that either the police are targeting them, or that they cannot control their spray. Beyond the inadvertent spraying, I have seen the police clearly aiming their spray directly into the eyes of people a few feet from them. These scenes have been documented by scores of videographers and photographers. After witnessing and suffering the effects of this chemical spray, I can only see such acts as cruel and inhumane. The primary purpose and effect of such a use of pepper spray is to cause pain and suffering.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines torture as follows: "To inflict severe pain or suffering upon; to torment; to distress or afflict grievously." The pain caused by pepper spray does disperse a crowd, but it does so at a high cost of pain and suffering caused to large numbers of people, many if not all of whom are law-abiding and peaceful citizens. I can see the justification of using pepper spray in lieu of bullets to defend police officers against the threat of violence. In none of the several instances where I saw officers using pepper spray was there remotely a situation that can be construed as threatening the safety of officers. Instead, pepper spray has become an offensive weapon in the hands of the police, not just to keep people on the sidewalks and obeying traffic lights, but also to create fear among the citizenry and obstruct our right to peaceful assembly and free expression. While there may always be conflicts between police and protestors, the City government should ban the use of pepper spray against unarmed protestors.
The night after the war against Iraq began, a Portland police vehicle with speakers mounted on top warned peaceful citizens to clear the streets or they would be hit with a chemical spray. It struck me as a cruel irony that one of the Bush administration's excuses for fighting the war in Iraq was Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons, and yet here in Portland "our" police were deploying chemical weapons against us for simply standing up for peace.