1 / 1In this image made from video, a police officer uses pepper spray as he walks down a line of Occupy demonstrators sitting on the ground at the University of CaliforniaAP
A police officer saunters up to a group of young protestors who are sat in a line on the ground, with their arms linked. Then he removes a canister of pepper spray from his belt, with a flourish, before casually proceeding to unload its contents into their faces.
The demonstrators remain silent and motionless, with their heads bowed. So the policeman carries on, methodically covering them, from point blank range. By the time he’s finished, their heads and faces are covered in a thick layer of the toxic red liquid.
This was the scene on the campus of UC Davis in northern California at around 4pm on Thursday, as 35 officers - armed with batons and guns, and dressed in riot gear - attempted to break-up a peaceful protest by roughly 200 left-wing students sympathetic to the Occupy movement.
Video of proceedings was uploaded to the internet at the weekend, placing the policeman, Lieutenant John Pike, and his superiors, on the front line of a simmering debate over the policing of the protests which began on Wall Street in September and have since spread across both America and the developed world.
To some, the casual use of extreme force against what appear to be peaceful demonstrators has crystallised anger at the alleged brutality with which the forces of law and order are going about their dealings with the so-called "99 percenters." To others, Lt Pike is simply a regular guy, trying to do his job in tricky circumstances.
Annette Spicuzza, the head of the UC Davis Campus Police, who were responsible for Friday’s incident, sits firmly in the latter camp. She yesterday told reporters that her officers had been “forced” to use the pepper spray, after demonstrators surrounded them. Lt Pike gave his victims sufficient warning of the impending attack, she added, and emptied the canister with a sweeping motion, in keeping with official procedures.
“When you are encircled by 200 individuals, I don’t know if I want to say ‘afraid,’ but I think they were quite concerned about their safety,” she said, regarding the circumstances her officers faced. “There was no way out of that circle... It's a very volatile situation."
Bearing the brunt of public criticism, however, was Linda Katehi, the Chancellor of UC Davis who had asked the police to clear demonstrators from her campus, a couple of hours north of San Francisco. In the aftermath of the incident, she had initially joined Spicuzza in defending the force's methods, saying that they had “no option” but to adopt a hard line.
That sparked immediate outrage, and within hours, the university’s Faculty Association, representing Ms Katehi’s employees, issued a statement called for her resignation, saying that her authorisation of “excessive” force had amounted to a “gross failure of leadership.”
Nathan Brown, an assistant English professor who witnessed the incident, wrote in an open letter: “Several of these students were hospitalized. Others are seriously injured. One of them, forty-five minutes after being pepper-sprayed down his throat, was still coughing up blood... You are responsible.”
In a press conference late on Saturday, Katehi performed a minor volte face, announcing a formal investigation into the affair, and saying that footage of the attack was “chilling.”
She claimed that she had “absolutely not” authorised the use of pepper spray in the manner. But although what the video showed was “sad and really very inappropriate,” Katehi insisted that she had no plans to resign.