The lesson of the UC-Davis pepper-spraying: We Americans can have our free speech rights, as long as we don’t try to exercise them

Glenn Greenwald SUNDAY, NOV 20, 2011 7:09 AM EST
The roots of the UC-Davis pepper-spraying
VIDEO
BY GLENN GREENWALD

The now-viral video of police officers in their Robocop costumes sadistically pepper-spraying peaceful, sitting protesters at UC-Davis (details here) shows a police state in its pure form. It’s easy to be outraged by this incident as though it’s some sort of shocking aberration, but that is exactly what it is not. The Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta adeptly demonstrates with an assemblage of video how common such excessive police force has been in response to the Occupy protests. Along those lines, there are several points to note about this incident and what it reflects:

(1) Despite all the rights of free speech and assembly flamboyantly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the reality is that punishing the exercise of those rights with police force and state violence has been the reflexive response in America for quite some time. As Franke-Ruta put it, “America has a very long history of protests that meet with excessive or violent response, most vividly recorded in the second half of the 20th century.” Digby yesterday recounted a similar though even worse incident aimed at environmental protesters.

The intent and effect of such abuse is that it renders those guaranteed freedoms meaningless. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed — or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet — many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power. That’s a natural response, and it’s exactly what the climate of fear imposed by all abusive police state actions is intended to achieve: to coerce citizens to “decide” on their own to be passive and compliant — to refrain from exercising their rights — out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.

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