Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Torture in Northern California

I remember the picture in the paper: a young woman twisted in pain as a sheriff's deputy pulled her eyelid back to swab pepper spray directly on her eyeball with a Q-tip.

We were planning to visit Humboldt County soon after to run a half marathon on the Avenue of the Giants. I seriously thought about not even going, this act of torture so horrified me. I didn't want to spend any money in a place where authorities knew they could do such a thing with impunity. In the end we did go.

Sometimes I can imagine the frustration of Humboldt police, confronted with what looked to them like privileged hippies who wanted to steal their rural communitys' jobs and way of life. Who were these young punks who volunteered to get arrested and seemed to think the cops should still think they were good people? But for this gratuitous violence done by men under no threat, I can make no excuse . . .

Last Thursday, the Pepper Spray 8 won, sort of. In a third trial, following a blistering appellate court reversal of a previous judge's instructions that had resulted in a hung jury, the latest panel ruled that sheriffs had used "excessive force" when they rubbed the burning substance into the eyes of people who refused to unlock themselves as part of demonstrations against old growth logging. The jury awarded $1 to each of the plaintiffs. The Pepper Spray 8 insisted that they had never been seeking money compensation, merely a ruling that such treatment of non-resisting prisoners was legally and morally wrong. That they got!

One of the jurors has since explained how the split decision came about:

[J]uror Athene Aquino, . . . provided additional details about the jury's deliberations. She said the nominal $1 per plaintiff damage award was the result of compromises to reach a unanimous verdict. Some of the jurors wanted to award substantial damages to plaintiffs for the pain, suffering and psychological effects inflicted on them. Others felt the force used was excessive, but thought there was no lasting injury, and didn't want to find for the plaintiffs if it meant paying out substantial taxpayer dollars. Ms. Aquino said many of the jurors felt that the jury instructions given by Judge Illston pushed them toward granting only nominal damages. . . .Ms. Aquino said she was convinced by viewing the police videotapes that excessive force was used, and that she cried when viewing the scenes where burly officers held young women roughly and swabbed their eyes with pepper spray drenched Q-tips.

Thirty eight seconds of the video Aquino describes is available here.

The question of who pays plaintiffs attorney's fees is sure to be subject to further litigation. The lawyers for the Pepper Spray 8 are confident the county will eventually have to cover $1 million of their costs. The local newspaper expects the case will cost the county $150,000, with any balance covered by insurance.

How much of a victory was this verdict?

California police training standards still allow for the use of pepper spray on nonviolent protesters -- only swabbed to the eyes with gauze or cotton balls, not Q-tips.

Struggle is long (and hard) -- that's why they call it struggle. Maybe I should rename this blog that?


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