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An activist's memo on the pepper spray-by-Q-tip trial

by Jan Lundberg

As a Culture Change reader you have had your upcoming report on peak oil delayed for a reason one could consider fascinating to those who take interest in civil rights and the struggle to save the remnants of the ancient redwood forests.  Since September 8th I have been attending the trial of police and the County of Humboldt (California) who used pepper-spray most innovatively to force nonviolent protesters into "compliance" at three lock-down sit-ins in 1997. 

Plaintiff's lawyer Dennis Cunningham demonstrating "black bear" lock sleeve before jury.  Drawing by K. Rudin

Sheriff's deputies and the Eureka Police held the heads of teenage girls and other activists, who were attached in steel sleeves to one another, and with Q-tips wiped pepper-spray in the eyes of the protesters.  When this did not work fast enough to make them unlock, additional blasts of the noxious chemical were applied within inches of the eyes of some protesters.  No female officers were used for the intensive full-body law-man contact on the pepper-spray victims who were mostly females.

Not surprisingly, a civil rights trial on these events is being heard in federal court in San Francisco.  Judge Susan Illston is presiding over eight plaintiffs (including my daughter Spring), their pro-bono lawyers, and the potentially liable defendants who are law enforcement officials and their bosses. 

As the trial is entering its final phases, to culminate with a ruling from the four-woman, four-man jury, right now I will not say much from my emotional vantage point as a caring fellow activist (and father) who viewed the tactics of the cops as torture.  Video tapes were made by the police and activists that have been shown in court and on news stations, when the events occurred and the lawsuit was filed.  A trial occurred in 1998, but after a hung jury the then-judge dismissed the case, claiming that no jury would ever find the behavior of the cops to be excessive force or unconstitutional.

But the appeals court and even the U.S. Supreme Court differed, so there is a new trial, finally, with a new judge to replace the former one found to be biased.  The plaintiffs' legal team includes the flamboyant Tony Serra (seen at right) who joined the lawyers who defeated the FBI and the Oakland Police in another recent case: Earth First! activists were blamed by law enforcement and the feds for a car bombing that injured only those same plaintiffs who were ultimately successful in federal court; plaintiffs were awarded $4.4 million.

The police in the Humboldt pepper-spray case are of course being painted as angels by their lawyers, as if the cops' whole concern was for the safety of the protesters and others.  The jury is not getting to hear the history of police brutality and violations of rights in Humboldt County in connection with other logging protests.  (I held a press conference on the injuries suffered by protesters, in 1996.)  However, the many details of this case that are being heard include the fact that hundreds of times nonviolent lock-down protests have occurred in efforts to slow the clear-cutting of ancient trees, and all activists were extricated from their binds using cutters and grinders without injury to anyone. 

A representative of the pepper-spray manufacturer has been an expert witness in this case to defend the chemical weapon's use, but more than one observer at the trial saw the representative as not only biased but the epitome of a fascistic scientific industrial establishment.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, they have not been allowed to have medical expert-witnesses to counter the claims of the manufacturer-representative who is paid to defend pepper-spray.  The chemical has been a factor in dozens of deaths in police custody, and the plaintiffs are citing long-term effects from the experience.  

Another unfortunate break against the plaintiffs was that there was not one Black person in the jury pool.  This was objected to, but the judge denied the plaintiffs' motion to try again for a more representative jury.  Blacks have been subjected to police brutality more than other groups in our society.

Instead of waiting for the next flurry of news stories on this case, you can go to <> and <>.  The lawyers have worked for free for the plaintiffs for YOUR right to use civil disobedience in exercising free speech and free assembly, to uphold the First and Fourth Amendments.  But there are legal costs apart from attorneys' fees that must be met please see the donation webpages in those websites for the pepper-spray plaintiffs.  Please help if you can, and pass this memo on to your friends and to other websites. 

The next Culture Change Letter is titled "Exiting the Age of Oil with resolve."  I hammered out a draft two weeks ago, offering the perspective on peak oil from the standpoint of a former petroleum-industry analyst who became an anti-oil activist.  But I want the report to cover a lot of ground with relatively few words.  A lot of information has been coming out, some of which must be countered, and the big picture is being obscured with red herrings and false claims.  You would have had this new report on oil by now if I had not been in court each day observing and offering modest help.  (I noticed, for example, that the pepper-oil extraction process was said to be done by solvents, which would have to mean petrochemicals such as toluene how can this be benign in the formulation?) 

Whether we be distracted by and from our forms of activism or the challenge of obtaining sufficient support for concentrating on our issues at Culture Change, we are now in a struggle to keep the website current, functional and online!  We are no longer receiving grants, as we have evolved into a media service covering climate change, petroleum dependence, sustainable living, and human rights.  Our syndication is growing (our prior essay "Doom and Gloom? - Your Perception Calls the Tune" is on,,, etc.).  The challenge now is for Culture Change and yours truly to survive during this time just prior to heightened relevance in petroleum issues and alternatives to petroleum.  Our archives online are rich in road-fighting, car-free living, energy analysis, and other essential topics, with links steadily added.  Clearly, your support is vital for us to stay visible and effective, and we thank you.  Please see

We are looking for journalistic contributions for our various departments which include Tools for Sustainability, Poetry Corner, Fall of Petroleum Civilization, Global Warming Crisis Council, 9-11 and others.  Let us hear from you.
Thank you,

Jan Lundberg
Culture Change
P.O. Box 3387, Santa Cruz, CA 95063 USA
Tel. 1-215-243-3144


See homepage for another courtroom drawing.  Need courtroom graphics for high resolution for print publication?  Contact K. Rudin. call plaintiffs' media contact number: (510) 548-3113

Prior coverage on this website: 
Hear a new song by a plaintiff and a duet between a pepper-sprayed protester and her father at

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