“It was a burning feeling in my throat for me…There was a lot of people who got it in their eyes. They were burning, they were screaming, crying.”
“…Moments later, my throat stung. I was coughing really bad and watering up.”
“This one guy was coming up to my wife going, ‘Call an ambulance! Call an ambulance!”
These are descriptions given by individuals who experienced pepper spray first hand. One might believe they come from demonstrators at Occupy protests, as the mainstream news frequently reports on activists being hit with the “less than lethal” substance by police officers. These statements instead however, come from shoppers at a Wal-mart in California on Black Friday, November 25, who were pepper sprayed by an overzealous shopper trying to fight her way to a pile of Xbox 360’s.
This incident rides on the heels of Fox’s Megyn Kelly saying pepper spray “is essentially, a food additive.” The Chicago Tribune published a story recently asking “What is pepper spray?” with a subheadline “it’s basically the same stuff that burns your tongue in spicy food.” Essentially, these are correct statements. The chemical component in pepper spray is capsaician, found in chili peppers, which causes a burning sensation. What such statements fail to highlight however, is the super-strength of pepper spray, which is more than five times that of the world’s hottest pepper, Bhut Jolokia. That neon-red or glowing orange pepper is already 400 times hotter than standard Tabasco sauce.
Scoville Heat Chart, imave via Eat More Chiles
Dr. Dino Rumoro, chairman for the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rush University Medical center told the Tribune “the spray also causes inflammation and burning in the nose and throat, and on the skin…most effects wear off in 30 to 90 minutes.”
The most iconic image to enter the American cultural lexicon involving pepper spray is that of UC Davis Police officer John Pike casually spraying the substance at demonstrators sitting peacefully at an Occupy protest. A spokesman for police said officers had felt surrounded and threatened. At an Occupy demonstration in Seattle, police used pepper spray to disperse a crowd, hitting an 84 year old woman, a priest, and a pregnant teen. On September 25, New York Times reported at Occupy Wall Street that an officer wearing a white shirt — indicating a rank of lieutenant or above — walked toward a group of demonstrators nearby and sent a blast of pepper spray that hit four women, videos show. Chelsea Elliot and the other women were penned in behind police netting meant for crowd control.
Even though pepper spray has been casually used by police officers and a Wal-Mart shopper against workers, shoppers, fathers, mothers, students, children, and the elderly, the legal penalties differ. At the time of publication, the Wal-Mart pepper sprayer has not been charged with any crime. However, according to a Chicago Tribune article, Chicago police arrested a woman accused of shoplifting and then attacking security guards when confronted about the theft. The weapon of choice that police say earned her an aggravated battery charge – pepper spray.
Furthermore, according to Chicago defense lawyer Robert J Callahan, “in Illinois aggravated battery is a class 4 felony. It carries a penalty of one to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine. In some instances it can be upgraded to a class 2 felony with a seven year sentence. It is a serious crime.”
If using pepper spray against fellow humans is such a serious crime that it warrants the above sentence, maybe police shouldn’t be so quick to pull the trigger on their red canisters pointed in the faces of civilians fighting for a better future. And maybe the whole watching world shouldn’t be so complacent in accepting chemical assaults as standard police practice.