Over the course of the Occupy protests, pepper spray and tear gas have become part of standard operating procedure. In some cases, police have assaulted protestors in other ways as well, apparently hoping to provoke a response.
It's easy, in the wake of this, to evoke memories of Kent State and claim that the police are evil. It's easier still to invoke memories of Nazi brownshirts and claim that we are devolving into a Nazi state.
It's easy, yes, but is it honest?
While I don't doubt that there are some officers who act with malice, I believe the majority of them act because pepper spray and tear gas are easier than direct confrontation. And I believe this has been happening for a long time in our police departments, but it took protests of scale to actually bring this to our attention.
I remember an incident years ago where an individual died after being shot with over 100 "less lethal" rounds. The story was this: the individual was mentally ill and off his meds. The officers knew this coming in, and yet they descended into the basement where the suspect was located. The suspect took a defensive position under the stairs and threatened police with a knife. Rather than wait the situation out, they loaded the less lethal ammunition and punped enough at the suspect to recreate the closing scene of "Bonnie and Clyde".
Unfortunately, we have culturally descended to the point where we believe that every action of the government is "for our own good", and in the intervening years, we ave not policed the police well enough. We let assaults by police go unchecked under the misguided mantra that somehow the suspects "deserved it". We ignore reports of brutality by pretending that they were a reasonable, measured response to the actions of individuals. And we allow officers unmonitored use of potentially lethal tools because we believe they will be used properly and with discretion.
What happened at UC-Davis was a wakeup call. Nothing in that scene was provoked, and the officer acted with sheer malice. But were it not for the shocking contrast between the passive resistance and is use of pepper spray as if he were using a can of RAID on some insects, we would not realize the cavalier attitude the police have towards the use of these instruments.
Of course, it may be that my analysis is wrong. Maybe malice is the sole driving force behind the actions of these officers. If so, they need to be arrested and tried. But if, perhaps, the actions are laziness, we need to make sure to let them know we will not allow them to continue to use these weapons without stringent oversight.