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Trial Set to Begin Over Use of Pepper Spray-Soaked Cotton Swabs on Non-Violent Protesters in 1997

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Seven years after Humboldt County police officers applied cotton swabs soaked in pepper spray to the eyes of activists engaged in non-violent protests, a trial beings today charging the tactic was an excessive use of force that amounted to torture. We play an excerpt of the police video and speak with the lead counsel on the case and one of the plaintiffs who was 17 years-old at the time of the incident. [includes rush transcript]

On three separate occasions in a three-week span in the fall of 1997, Humboldt County police officers arrived at peaceful sit-in protests calling for the protection of Headwaters Forest in northern California.

On all three occasions, the activists–who ranged in age from 16 to 40 years-old–locked their arms in metal pipes to participate in a non-violent protest of logging practices. And on all three occasions, the police responded using a method that Amnesty International would later deem "tantamount to torture."

One by one, police officers forcibly seized the heads of each demonstrator and inserted cotton swabs saturated with the chemical agent pepper spray into their eyes. In two of the cases, officers also sprayed the substance directly into their eyes at close range.

The eight activists filed a civil rights lawsuit against Humboldt County later that month. In connection with the suit, police video-tapes of the pepper spraying were released to the public. When excerpts of the tapes aired on network television news, the graphic images drew international outrage and condemnation.

The case went to court in 1998, but the trial ended in a hung jury. Over the following years, challenges were made at the state, appeals court and US Supreme Court levels. Today the civil rights case of the "Pepper Spray Eight" returns to trial in San Francisco.

To talk about this case, we are joined on the phone from San Francisco by the lead counsel in the lawsuit, Dennis Cunningham and one of the plaintiffs in the case, Spring Lundberg. Before we speak to them, we go back seven years to the morning of September 25, 1997 where Spring and other activists were engaging in a sit-in protest at Pacific Lumber’s offices, in Scotia, California. The police arrived on the scene. This is what happened.

  • Video of Humboldt County police officers using pepper spray-soaked cotton swabs on activists at a protest at Pacific Lumber’s offices, in Scotia, California on September 25, 1997.
    - Excerpt from the documentary "Fire in the Eyes," Courtesy Headwaters Action Video Collective.
  • Dennis Cunningham, San Francisco civil rights and criminal defense attorney who is lead counsel in the case. He represented Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney in their victorious civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and the Oakland Police Department in June 2002.
  • Spring Lundberg, one the eight plaintiffs in the case against Humboldt County. She was 17 years-old at the time. She is a musician, writer and activist on issues of corporate globalization and ecology.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we speak to them, though, we’re going to go back seven years to that morning, September 25, 1997, where Spring and other activists were engaging in protests at Pacific Lumber’s offices in Scotia, California. The police arrived on the scene. This is what happened.

OFFICER: I’m requesting that you leave immediately, within five minutes or you will be subject to arrest. It is my intention, if you do not leave, to use pepper spray or chemical mace to extricate you from your — from the steel cases. You have five minutes.

VOICE OVER: Five minutes started ticking down, and I remember looking at the clock. It was all about intimidation really.

POLICE: Okay, folks. Your time is up. I have given you five minutes. Are you going to leave [inaudible] leave the building? Okay, we’ll be starting to use the pepper spray then. Pardon?

ACTIVIST: Are you going to really use —

ACTIVIST: [screaming] Don’t hurt me! No! Stop it! My eyes!

POLICE: I won’t hurt you, as long as you leave.

ACTIVIST: My eyes, goddamn it!

ACTIVIST: You’re hurting us!

VOICE OVER: I could hear Molly crying and Spring crying. I just wanted to unlock and, you know, help them.

ACTIVIST: Please don’t hurt me! I don’t want to be hurt!

ACTIVIST: Stop it! Stop it!

ACTIVIST: No!

AMY GOODMAN: That videotape from police included in the documentary called Fire in the Eyes, courtesy of Earth Films. We’re joined now by Dennis Cunningham and Spring Lundberg. Dennis Cunningham the lawyer, Spring Lundberg, one of the protesters. Spring, you yourself, what exactly happened then?

SPRING LUNDBERG: Well, as you said, we went to Pacific Lumber’s headquarters office that day, and I was 17 at the time. I had grown up in Humboldt County and saw the huge redwood trees going out on the log trucks. So, I had an early education in resource extraction and how our economy works. I decided this is something I want to put myself on the line for. I want to take action for this issue. So, I went to the offices expecting to be arrested and, you know, expecting to be responsible for the consequences of my action, but instead police that day created this get-tough policy, this experimental pepper spray tactic. They crossed the line that day. So, we’re excited to start trial today because the case is about holding the police accountable to the consequences of their actions which shocked people when they saw the footage.

AMY GOODMAN: The police used pepper spray using Q-tips and applying it to the eyelids of the individual protesters. Dennis Cunningham, this case today, this trial, where is it being held? Where does it stand in the whole legal process? I mean, it’s now, what, seven years later?

DENNIS CUNNINGHAM: Well, this is a retrial. It’s in the district court, a trial court, the federal court. There was a long process of appeal after the earlier trial and then another postponement when we made a petition after they — the judge we used to have wanted to take the case up to Humboldt County for a trial. We thought was exactly the wrong thing to do, and then, so there was an appeal from that, and he was removed from the case, and now we have a different judge, and that’s what’s taken so long to get back to trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Spring, what exactly did it feel like, the pepper spray cotton swabs, the Q-tips applied with your eyelids rolled back?

SPRING LUNDBERG: Well, the first thing was just feeling terrified, really. And then the pain kicked in. This is caustic stuff. There is DuPont emulsifiers in pepper spray. This stuff has dissolved latex gloves when officers have squeezed out cotton balls that were soaked in pepper spray on people’s faces. It felt like acid eating my face frankly. And who knows the long term effects, damage to the skin tissue or something like this, but really the overwhelming feeling was they’re terrorizing us, and it’s for our beliefs. And so that’s why a case like this is important. We try to put it in a larger context. It’s important, you know, we’re thinking about the Republican National Convention, we’re living under the PATRIOT Act and post-September 11 as a society. We’re trying to ask ourselves, okay, where is the line that we’re trying to hold police accountability to, and so we — it’s not just about what happened to me. Although I want to talk about that as well. It was very — it was a painful experience and for a 17-year-old, you know, a life-changing one. But it’s about the larger picture, and so many images never make the evening news, never make it even onto radio or never come to light. So, we wanted our case to be a window, to shed light on a lot of abuses that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights called "When Police Play Russian Roulette," which makes the case for an immediate moratorium on police use of pepper spray introduced into the late 1980s. It says, in the short time pepper spray has been on the market, at least 100 people nationwide have died in police custody after being pepper sprayed. Since it was first introduced by law enforcement agencies in the late 1980s, no reliable studies have been completed showing that it’s safe for use on humans. To the contrary, a growing body of evidence catalogued in this report that makes the case that pepper spray is dangerous and unreliable.

SPRING LUNDBERG: Exactly. That’s exactly right. A former F.B.I. agent, Thomas Ward, was the man responsible for the original study that said, hey, pepper pray is good stuff, let’s put it all onto police tool belts. He was convicted of taking kickbacks, money donations to him from the pepper spray industry. That’s the study that everything was based on, but that never went back and got looked at. So, here we’re dealing with this, you know, unknown substance and not only that, but as an instrument of discrimination or torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Dennis Cunningham, what will happen in court today?

DENNIS CUNNINGHAM: We expect to pick a jury or at least start picking a jury, and it’s possible we will get started with opening statements. Probably that will happen tomorrow.

SPRING LUNDBERG: We would like to ask people to come out to the trial. We saw in the Judy Bari trial, which Dennis and our legal team was part of, Judy Bari vs. F.B.I., we saw the jury really, you know, see supporters in the courtroom and be affected by that, because they saw that we had support. So we’d like people to come down. It’s at the Federal Building in San Francisco. We have a website, that’s nopepperspray.org.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Spring Lundberg, one of the eight plaintiffs in the case against Humboldt County. She was seventeen years at the time of the protests, 17 years old. And Dennis Cunningham, San Francisco civil rights and criminal defense attorney.

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