The Banality of Evil
On November 18, 2011, a campus police officer at UC Davis used pepper spray on a row of seated students peacefully protesting. A cell phone video of the incident went viral, made national headlines, and even inspired an internet meme. The most disturbing feature of the video, and a major reason for the uproar, was the casual attitude of the officer. While onlookers screamed in shock, he sprayed a dangerous chemical at the students the way someone would water their plants.
Like most people, my first reaction was outrage. But I also immediately thought about countless acts of unjustified, brutal pepperspraying that never see the light of day because they are perpetrated in California’s secretive state youth prisons, called the Division of Juvenile Justice.
Less than a year ago, a group of youth at one prison sat down and refused to return to their cells until they could talk to an administrator. They wanted to know why their family visitation time had not been restored as promised. They felt deceived and correctly believed their rights were being violated. Guards denied their request and threatened to use pepper spray. Youth asserted that guards couldn’t pepper spray them since they sat peacefully with their hands visible. Guards doused them anyway. Several were later beaten in their cells. Parents later saw the resulting injuries, including black eyes and swollen chins.
I’ve read grievances filed after such incidents. In one emergency grievance, a youth asked for a chance to see the nurse and rinse pepper spray out of his eyes. He later told me that he started to use the sink in his cell but his water was shut off. The grievance form was stained with his blood.
Evidence corroborating these stories from youth and parents are a matter of public record. In March 2011, a court-mandated report found that prison guards used pepper spray repeatedly, up to 4 or 5 times in a single incident, on youth who presented no danger to themselves or others and who often had mental health designations. The most recent data available show that chemical agents were used in 868 incidents during the first six months of 2010.
We have normalized cruelty towards youth in this state. For decades, we’ve routinely warehoused them in remote prisons while subjecting them to systematic isolation and torture. The horrors of this system surface only occasionally - like when a leaked video shows a guard beating a youth lying on the ground, or when two youth commit suicide together in their cell. On a daily basis, we participate in this system by paying for it ($200,000 per youth per year) and by allowing it to continue.
College students were pepper sprayed for protesting budget cuts that endanger the right to education. Youth behind bars are routinely sprayed for protesting issues like being able to get visits from parents or being able to shower without wearing leg shackles and handcuffs. Both groups are inextricably linked. They remind us that California ranks #1 in prison spending and #43 in education.
Underfunding schools and creating a system of mass incarceration didn’t happen in isolation. They happened in the context of rising inequality, dismantling services for the most vulnerable, and shrinking opportunities for everyone. Homelessness increased until it seemed natural. Average wages fell until McJobs were pervasive and normal. Prison construction exploded until mass incarceration seemed inevitable. These trends required voters to spend decades accepting the premise of injustice, that evil is a necessary part of everyday life.
When youth boldly started the Occupy movement, I felt we were waking up from a collective daze. This was not just a temporary upsurge but a watershed moment - a tipping point. Trends of inequality that went uninterrupted for decades would finally start reversing.
But evil is never banal to those directly impacted. Imprisoned youth and their families never stopped struggling for dignity in the face of an abusive and failed youth prison system. Their physical scars are too real, their trauma too immediate. Over the last eight years, their leadership has been decisive in forcing five youth prisons to close.
Even in the most repressive circumstances imaginable, youth are organizing. Right now, at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, at least three living units have already signed a public letter demanding improvements to unhealthy and unsanitary conditions. For the first time, they’ve started a public petition at great risk to themselves. They ask for your support.
In the months and years ahead, let’s refuse to allow the premises of fear, cynicism, and inequality to permeate our daily lives. The crises in our communities are too profound for us to fall back asleep. Now is the time to strategize and act.
Evil persists only if we ignore it. Take the simple first step of signing this petition and circulate it to everyone you know.
Mar 05, 2012
Jan 17, 2012
Nov 16, 2011
Nov 08, 2011