The Visual Politics of Pepper Spray

I fucking hate pepper spray.

I was just watching some video from the port actions in Olympia last November, now relevant as there are 27 people now on trial for it. Watch some of the video, and pay attention to the way the whole thing looks. The suffering is semi-obscured from sight, lots of sound, people yelling.

I have never been pepper-sprayed. I have had it waft up on me from my shower after having let folks use it to wash off. Started crying in the shower, not pleasant, and that was just the watered down version.

Back to the visuals. If you ever have been sprayed, imagine what a comparable amount of pain would feel like if it were more spectacular, if someone watching could have a bit more of an idea of what it actually feels like. pepper spray leaves people temporarily blind and sends them off to find medical attention. it is the lack of permanency and the way it breaks your will that is the most terrifying part about it, and probably the most effective part for police.

There is no blood, no scar, no mark but for slightly reddened skin and eyes. It makes you look weak. And crazy. Imagine seeing someone running around like a chicken with its head cut off. They are yelling and screaming but you don’t know what about, again no blood, no marks, it just looks like they are really upset.

Now imagine you’ve never been pepper sprayed and none of your friends have either. Imagine you’re watching a clip on TV. Now there is probably a lot of framing going on in the newscast, but focus on the images. What I see in my head is not violence. I see spray coming out of a can, hitting someone and they run away or fall on the ground, and start crying. The strength and resolve of the sprayed is more or less gone and what may have once been a coherent group is now scattered, worried either about themselves and their face or other people’s faces.

How do we meet this tactic? Some wear bandanas and goggles, only to have them get ripped off if close enough. How do we meet this visual tactic?

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