What Do Occupy Protesters Think About Pepper Spray Cop Being Awarded $38,000?
Remember pepper spray cop? He's the campus police officer at the University of California, Davis who decided to handle a seated line of peaceful, non-threatening Occupy demonstrators in the most rational way he could: by calmly firing a stream of pepper spray directly into their eyes from close range, like a landscape gardener squirting pesticide at some overgrown flowerbeds.
At first, everyone was outraged at Officer John Pike's blasé manner of temporarily blinding peaceful protesters, then the internet got involved, turned the image into meme—photoshopping Pike into basically every pop culture image ever created—and everyone kind of forgot about it. Until last week, when it emerged that he has been awarded $38,000 in workers compensation by California's Department of Industrial Relations—more than the $30,000 each of his victims received—for the "psychiatric injuries" he's experienced since that day in November of 2011. UC Davis will foot the bill, in addition to the $70,000 the school paid him in salary while he was on adminstrative leave.
I spoke to Bernie Goldsmith—an ex-Wall Street attorney and social activist who was an Occupy organizer at UC Davis and there the day of the pepper spraying—about what his fellow protesters think of Pike's payout.
VICE: What happened that day? How did it escalate to the pepper spray incident?
Bernie Goldsmith: We all put up our tents in the middle of the day and predicted that the police would come at about 3 or 4 AM, arrest a few of us and allow the others to leave. We thought it would be a very typical protest. Instead what happened was a shockingly stupid mismanagement from the administration and the police force. The [UC Davis] administration decided that, instead of doing the sensible thing of evicting us at night, the police should evict us at 3 PM, surrounded by students.
Which riled everyone in attendance up a bit, I suppose.
That’s an understatement. I was a scout on the day, looking out for police approaching the quad. And, to my great surprise, instead of two or three officers coming and quietly writing tickets and telling us to leave, I observed a phalanx of fully armored riot police with helmets and shields. We'd moved the tents into a circle in the middle of what is basically a giant field, so there was no obstruction being caused. Protesters got into a ring around the circle and locked arms. Then the police tore apart the ring, handcuffed a couple of people in this first group, and started tearing down the tents.
How did the students react to that?
Well, the entire scene was surrounded by students in a crowd shaped like a light bulb next to a line where the police had a safety chord for egress. A second group of students linked and walked across the neck of that light bulb and sat down. The effect of that was not really to impede the officers from leaving—it would have made it difficult, but not impossible, for them to transport the prisoners that they had captured over that line. So the officers kind of looked at the line and they decided to pepper-spray the people there.
Did it seem like a quick decision? I think the fact that Pike looks so nonchalant in that photo is why it was shared so much.
There was a bit of a pause before they decided what to do. Pike was the officer commander, so the guy who sprayed everyone was the guy who was supposed to be in charge. If you’re an incident commander, you don’t go down and crack skulls, you remain removed so you can observe the action and give out orders. I think they had come into it expecting a bit of fun. They thought they’d be up against some 100-pound vegan hippies. In fact, they even named the operation, "Operation Eco-Friendly."
But it didn't end up being particularly friendly, right?
Yeah, all of the students started getting very angry—although, they were very well controlled. They didn’t assault the officers, but everyone wailed and hollered as they watched their fellow students get brutalized. The UC Davis police ended up freaking out and calling a cross-jurisdictional group of police to bring in all of their officers. They took the people that they were able to grab and locked them up. That evening, my friends got out of jail, and we ended up meeting at a café. We were still soaked in pepper spray. That was all in one day.
How did you find out about Pike's compensation?
I've got this friend— a homeless guy who just doesn’t give up [with the Occupy cause]—and we were checking state databases in case [Officer Pike's] name would appear. We saw that he'd filed this claim. I ended up talking to Corey Goldman, who's a reporter we were feeding information to throughout the Occupy movement, and that’s how it broke.
What's the general feeling at UC Davis about Pike's compensation?
There are three things I can tell you about it. One—he’s legally entitled to it; it’s an insurance payment. Two—the fact that he’s getting it is a tremendous injustice. Three—not only did he get the payout of $38,000, but after committing those horrendous acts that were obviously over the line, he got eight months of paid administrative leave while they investigated it, and he got to keep his retirement and other benefits. Giving these payouts to police officers is a message that says, "No matter what you do or whose rights you trample, you're part of a big family of police and we take care of our own." It gives them an even greater sense that they’re above the law themselves. They felt untouchable, which is why they reacted the way they did that day. They thought there would be no consequences for their actions, and—if you look at it—there hasn’t been.
What do you think the payout says about the results of the Occupy movement at UC Davis?
It was a protest against high student fees and, if you look at the result here, everyone lost. The students sued the university for having their rights trampled, the administration ended up justifying $200,000 in public relations expenses because of this movement, the police officers got their payout and Pike got his retirement and his $38,000. Everyone here got paid and all that money got wasted, when the purpose of the project was because the university was wasting money.
What has happened with the protesters since the event? Are you still actively involved in any kind of movement?
The Occupy movement, I believe, doesn’t exist anymore. It was a moment where everything aligned and something in the world changed. By definition, that thing itself cannot endure, but the changes that it caused have. Occupy created a network of activists. It has created an offspring of innovations that are happening in neighboring cities, and given that this happened at a university means that it trained an entire generation of university students in the importance of activism. It taught them that authority is not always right and they’ve taken that lesson across the nation. The ways that that will affect this country and the ways that it will continue on cannot be encapsulated, but they will endure.
Do you feel sorry for Pike?
I don't wish any ill to Officer Pike. I think he's tortured himself with his own actions. I do sympathize with him, just as I would with anybody. But something struck me that makes it difficult for me to muster outrage at how the public treated him. Basically, part of a cop evaluation is a psychiatric evaluation. It’s reported that, when he spoke to the psychiatrist, he said that the thing that he primarily felt was angry that the world found him at fault. So I think being unable to realistically understand what he did and why it was wrong will probably prevent him from achieving psychological wholeness in the future.
What do you think about the death threats he says he's received?
As far as death threats go, I’m sure he received them, but I’ve had death threats and I’m not getting $38,000 for them! I think it's unwise and outrageous to give him death threats—they give the wrong message about our movement, which is a non-violent one. There are a limited number of avenues he can use to gain collective public sympathy being who he is, so I don’t find any fault with him maximising on that.
Has anybody organized protests following the payout?
I initially organized a protest at the workers' compensation hearing, which would have been a coverage hearing. In response to that, both the University of California and officer Pike's attorney decided to make it private, behind closed doors. There will be no protest about this. To be honest, it happened nearly two years ago, so if a lot of us protested, it means we don’t have anything new.
Follow Jak on Twitter: @JAK_TH
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