Culture Change e-Letter #75
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
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.
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
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
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 Truthout.org, Mindfully.org,
Bluegreenearth.com, 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
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P.O. Box 3387, Santa Cruz, CA 95063 USA
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: http://culturechange.org/issue15/pepperspray.html
Hear a new song by a plaintiff and a duet between a pepper-sprayed protester and
her father at
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