The Whole World Is Watching: Why Pepper Spray is Good for Occupy Wall Street

It's the video that everyone seems to be talking about, or at least a lot of people on Youtube. This video depicts a University of California, Davis police officer pepper-spraying a group of protestors who are peacefully seated on the ground. This incident occurred at a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement was starting to lose public sympathy, and relevance. After all, in New York City, protestors had just recently been kicked out of Zuccotti Park.


Leave it up to the cops to win back sympathy for the protestors. (In early October the movement also gained support when New York City police officers pepper-sprayed protestors, and, inadvertently, a local Fox TV reporter. Whoops.)

According to Susan Herman, President of the American Civil Liberties Union, the police reactions have given the movement a tremendous boost. She told Big Think in a recent interview the "very inappropriate reactions from the police" have received a lot of attention because "when the government is trying to prevent people from saying what they want to say or from assembling or having a demonstration in an appropriate way, that really is a problem."

Herman is the author of Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy. Below are excerpts from her interview with Big Think on the tension between Constitutional rights and public safety.

Big Think: Recently New York City kicked the protestors out of Zuccotti Park where Occupy Wall Street started, and the city cited residents’ concerns about sanitation, health hazards and that kind of thing, and also the negative impact on businesses with people camping out in the park indefinitely.  So, what kind of tension do you see here with civil liberties? Does Ocuupy Wall Street have the right to occupy public space in this way? 

Susan Herman: I think there is a tension between the right of people to protest and the concerns on the other side of people who are in the neighborhood where protestors want to be camping out. The First Amendment, which is what guarantees us our right to freedom of speech and assembly, is not absolute. So, of course, people have a right to protest, they have the right to make their voices heard, and the ACLU has always defended that. That’s why we were founded in 1920, to help people to speak out. But, the Supreme Court has always said--and this is something you have to agree with in principle--that it is appropriate for governments, at all levels, local, state and national, to impose time, place and manner restrictions on speech.  

So, I have the right to express my opinion, but I don’t have the right to come into your living room at 2:00 a.m. and express my opinion at the top of my voice. Yet that’s just the way it is. So, of course, where the rubber hits the road is the whole question of what’s an appropriate time, place or manner of restriction. Of course, the city can prevent people from screaming in the middle of the night and disrupting the people who live there and keeping them from sleeping.  

The Supreme Court had a case a number of years ago where they said that it was not inconsistent with the First Amendment to prohibit people from sleeping out on public space. So, that’s a baseline, whether or not you agree with that particular decision. So, you know, people can have a right to protest on public land, but they don’t necessarily have the right to live there indefinitely or to protest in any manner they want to.  

The ACLU affiliates have been very busy because of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and in some places the cities would react by making up rules they had never had before. They would suddenly set a curfew just to keep the protestors from protesting in the park. And you know, that’s not appropriate. You can’t react to the content of a speech. You can’t just have a specific reaction to say, “Well, we don’t want you to say what you have to say.”  But in places where there were rules about who was allowed to camp out in the park, if that’s just a neutral rule that doesn’t have to do with the content of the speech, there does have to be some balance there.

Big Think: Do you think that breaking up of this protest will lead to civil unrest? 

Susan Herman:  Well, the Occupy Wall Street Movement started in a very particular way with people camping out and trying to get attention for the views they were expressing in a particular way. We’ve seen many different variations around the country of how that’s played out. And in some places, I think we’ve seen very inappropriate reactions from the police, but, I think the movement was really given a tremendous boost by the pepper spraying that happened in New York City. You know, that got a lot of attention because when the government is trying to prevent people from saying what they want to say or from assembling or having a demonstration in an appropriate way, that really is a problem. So I think that, actually, oddly enough, because of that very poorly judged behavior, I think the movement really got a boost.  

Now, it’s very difficult to say in different places if the Occupy Wall Street people are prevented from actually camping out in physical spaces what’s going to happen. What we’ve already seen in New York is people can move to a different space and maybe the whole thing just continues. I think that, again, the fact that people are not being permitted to physically do a particular thing could be used as a motivator for the movement. You know, it's very difficult to predict what the result would be of a particular action because this movement right now is not restricted to New York City and to Zuccotti Park. It’s all over the city and indeed all over the world. I’ve actually seen the tents in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and in Washington D.C. where they were clever enough to camp out right across from the ACLU office just in case. 

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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