Outrageous payout for the ‘pepper-spray cop’: Fury we can agree on

Now that we all live inside hermetically-sealed political feedback bubbles when it comes to receiving and reacting to news, it’s never been easier to form an opinion on a given story. That’s particularly true of the type of Rorschach-test-like stories for which our opinions are already predestined -- one reader’s black-ink-blot socialist plot to undermine national security is another’s evidence of encroaching totalitarianism run amuck. The crazy part is, both things can be true at the same time, depending on whom you ask.

Occasionally a story comes along, however, like the news about former UC Davis police officer John Pike, a.k.a. the “pepper-spray cop,” that is a bit harder to figure out where to land on the reactionary knee-jerk spectrum.

Pike will receive a $38,055 workers’ compensation settlement for emotional distress and depression he suffered after his role in pepper-spraying a group of peaceful students during an Occupy UC Davis protest in 2011. He was fired after having been placed on paid leave eight months later. Twenty-one of the protesters were awarded $30,000 each in a different settlement.

That’s ridiculous, you might be thinking, and you’d be right. But the reasons why it’s ridiculous aren’t quite so easy to pin down when it comes to our typical political demagogue relativity index. In order to help process the complexity of the case, I’ve drawn up a score card (written in sweeping generalizations for your convenience) to aid you in coming to the correct opinion that will further reinforce your preconceived political biases.

To begin with, the question of how to react to political protesters seems like a no-brainer for conservatives and liberals alike. It’s slightly more convoluted than that. You would think that conservatives would automatically come down against protesters, but that’s only true if they happen to be protesting for a progressive cause. In cases in which the political leanings of protesters aren’t immediately known, or seem right-leaning, reactions are subject to 180-degree turns once more information becomes available. Since these were Occupy types, the right’s sympathy therefore rejects the dirty hippies. As one L.A. Times commenter sagely pointed out: “At Davis, the leftist, useless to mankind, no value, protoplasm students were lawfully ordered to move. They didn’t.” From a rightward perspective then, the settlement is justified.


The left, for its part, is consistently suspicious of law enforcement, and any act of aggression against citizens, even if they’re technically breaking the law, is an outrage. On the other hand, the far right are constantly moaning about how the government is coming to take their guns away, and it’s most likely local law enforcement agencies who will be enacting this brutal coup against liberty, so it’s beneficial to maintain a healthy skepticism. For the purposes of keeping score here, this category is a tie.

Colleges such as UC Davis aren’t quite as easy to side with or against either. For the right, anything that takes place on a college campus is clear-cut evidence of the disintegration of American virtue, so the mere mention of the school name -- a public university! -- should set off a conservative’s liberal nonsense alarms. Then again, the university employee in question here was engaged in the act of cleaning up lefty vermin, so you can see how this one is confusing. Even more so when you realize it’s public funds being used to pay out both sides here. So while it’s possible to be happy that this brave officer, a former Marine, was compensated for putting himself at risk in the line of duty, you wouldn’t necessarily want to see tax money going to waste. Pike was earning $121,680 a year at the time, incidentally. Did your head explode yet? Advantage: conservative outrage.

Unions rear their heads in this story as well. Employees of the University of California are subject to collective bargaining. So while a right-leaning patriot might be happy to see vindication for a steward of the peace, his membership in a union, the cause of most of the laziness in our culture and a direct threat to the prosperity of the American future, means that you have to maintain a safe distance from aligning with Pike too thoroughly. Lawyers, too, play a role here (they’re getting a hefty sum from the settlements), as do activist judges who are beholden to public sentiment instead of the rule of the law. That’s like three separate boogeymen for the right to contend with here.

And what about this idea of “emotional distress” in the first place? That seems a little, you know, liberal-minded, if you know what I’m saying. So while you might want to naturally support Pike, the fact that he got sad and couldn’t work because of it should have your blood boiling. Just because a psychiatric test found Pike’s level of disability “moderate” doesn’t mean your political reaction here has to be. Although maybe it should.

While it’s true there’s plenty for those of us on either side of the political divide to cherry-pick out of this story to weave together our own narrative of outage, the bottom line is that a campus police officer who assaulted peaceful students and was then paid his enormous salary for eight months for not working is now being awarded more money than the people he pepper-sprayed in the face for exercising their Constitutional rights. That sounds like something we can all agree to be furious about.


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Luke O’Neil is a Boston-based writer and frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, Esquire and Slate. Follow him on Twitter: @lukeoneil47.