Pepper Spray: It's Not Just for Dinner Anymore

pepper spray

When I left home and moved to New York City at age 23, my mom sent me a can of mace to keep in my bag. She was a small town girl and the thought of me riding the subway surrounded by God knows who -- gangsters? drug addicts? commuters? -- kept her up at night. But giving me some self-defense to keep at my side made her feel better, even if I wasn't sure I'd be able to use it correctly if a confrontation did crop up. I was fortunate, and after five years in the city I threw away the mace and moved to California.

But maybe I should buy another can -- to protect myself from the police? Last weekend, Occupy protesters at the University of California, Davis, got a taste of one of the nation's most popular and least-delicious forms of self-defense: pepper spray.

Sold in drugstores for as little as $5.00 for a keychain container, pepper spray, like mace, is made to cause coughing, pain, and tears, slowing down an assailant by temporarily blinding them and, if they're asthmatic, sending them to the hospital. It's one of those things you never want to experience, though some daredevils have faced it just to see how much it sucks. Their conclusion? It sucks.

In this video, Johnny Knoxville undergoes pepper spray, a stun gun, and Tasering, and concludes that pepper spray is by far the most painful of the three. It's not exactly scientific, but I trust Johnny to be straight with me, as he's not being paid by Big Spray, he does this stuff for fun.

My point is, pepper spray is worth taking seriously.

Many are complaining that protesters passively resisting the police by sitting quietly on a campus sidewalk and refusing to move did not deserve to be sprayed like so many roaches. Some have gone further, calling for the resignation of UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi, who apparently approved the police's actions on Friday (but then apologized and condemned their actions on Monday). The ACLU calls the police's action "excessive," saying that the protesters were peacefully assembling, per their constitutional rights.

Others, however, point out that if the police ask you to move, you'd better move no matter what, and that the protesters ought to feel lucky that they only got pepper sprayed and not clobbered by batons or shot with rubber bullets, or real bullets à la Kent State in 1970. And you've probably heard the one about the Fox News commentator who dismissed pepper spray as nothing more than "a food product."

Which is partially true. The thing that makes pepper spray unpleasant is capsaicin, a chemical derived from the group of plants that includes chili peppers. It has been used for centuries in China and India to give "heat" to food, as well as to ward off attackers. Chinese warriors would create little "bombs" of cayenne pepper wrapped in rice paper to throw in the faces of their enemies, and in 17th-century Japan the police were said to have a small box filled with chili powder that they'd blow directly into the faces of guilty prisoners. The New York Times also suggests there's evidence that some Japanese women would tuck some form of pepper into the sleeves of their kimonos to stop the advances of aggressive men.

It's legal for both citizens and police officers to carry and use pepper spray in the United States, though specifics vary by state. It's also legal in the Philippines, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Poland (if you're over 18), and India (if you go through a background check). In Finland, Italy, New Zealand, and Hong Kong you need a license for it, and in Belgium, the U.K., and Iran, it's illegal for anyone but the police to possess it. In many countries it's legally classed as a firearm.

So, no, I won't actually be carrying a fresh can of pepper spray to ward off my next traffic ticket.

"Sailor Receives Pepper Spray Training" photo by U.S. Navy Official Imagery/Flickr

human rights, in the news, protests, politics, technology