One hundred years ago, an American pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville developed a scale to measure the intensity of a pepper’s burn. The scale – as you can see on the widely used chart [above] – puts sweet bell peppers at the zero mark and the blistering habenero at up to 350,000 Scoville Units.
I checked the Scoville Scale for something else yesterday. I was looking for a way to measure the intensity of pepper spray, the kind that police have been using on Occupy protestors including this week’s shocking incident involving peacefully protesting students at the University of California-Davis.
As the chart makes clear, commercial grade pepper spray leaves even the most painful of natural peppers (the Himalayan ghost pepper) far behind. It’s listed at between 2 million and 5.3 million Scoville units. The lower number refers to the kind of pepper spray that you and I might be able to purchase for self-protective uses. And the higher number? It’s the kind of spray that police use, the super-high dose given in the orange-colored spray used at UC-Davis.
Shocking, isn't it? A few years ago, I was given a hot pepper - a really hot pepper - and I cut it up to use a little bit in cooking. I washed my hands thoroughly, and again a few hours later, when I went to put in my contacts.
But there was still enough residue on my hands that I couldn't do it. It was just excruciatingly painful when even some tiny, infinitesimal amount of capsaicin oil got in my eyes. I scrubbed and scrubbed, but I finally had to wait until it wore off naturally.
I can't imagine how painful it would have been sprayed in my eyes! And even that would have been far, far less painful than police pepper spray. This post makes another good point:
But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.
Until you look it up on the Scoville scale and remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison. That we’re not talking about cookery but a potent blast of chemistry. So that if OC spray is the U.S. police response of choice – and certainly, it’s been used with dismaying enthusiasm during the Occupy protests nationwide, as documented in this excellent Atlantic roundup - it may be time to demand a more serious look at the risks involved.
The post continues with the very real risks of pepper spray, and that is certainly important. But here, I want to just think about the whole point of torturing peaceful protestors.
Yes, "torture." Pepper spray is designed to cause incredible pain. That's the whole point. It's a very useful product for taking down violent criminals when you don't want to use lethal force, but to spray in the eyes of peaceful protestors?
Pepper spray is useful for defense because it does cause such intense pain. But the police weren't in any danger at UC-Davis. No one was in any danger! These protestors were sitting on the ground, threatening no one.
Indeed, when that police lieutenant wanted to get into position to spray them in the eyes, he just stepped over the protestors! Obviously, he wasn't worried about them at all. It's abundantly clear that he considered them no threat. (If you haven't seen it, one of the video clips is here.)
Even after the spraying, the worst thing police faced was the crowd chanting "shame on you!"
This was nothing but the deliberate use of pain - in effect, torture - on peaceful American citizens. As with other examples of such things, it's an attempt at intimidation so people will be afraid of exercising their Constitutional rights, no matter what rights we might be guaranteed on paper.