Pepper spray and the police

During the years Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York, his administration was on the losing end of a long string of First Amendment lawsuits. It got to the point that a federal appeals court noted the "relentless onslaught" of such cases, resulting in 18 decisions against the city.I had thought that having a media executive as mayor would lead to greater respect in City Hall for the First Amendment. Michael Bloomberg's response to the arrests of more than 1,800 peaceful protesters at the Republican National Convention in 2004 - largely just to get them off the street for as long as 36 hours - demonstrated otherwise.This background makes it less shocking than it should be that there is now a controversy over the video-verified fact that a high-ranking police official - a deputy inspector - squirted pepper spray on Chelsea Elliott, 25, a woman taking part in the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration. Perhaps the various videos don't tell the whole story, but from the look of it, Elliott was doing no more than exercising her right to free speech at the time.Jim Dwyer does a good job in today's Times of providing the broader context - a Police Department with a growing power that is unchecked.Unchecked by whom? The list could be lengthy, since a variety of local, state and federal authorities have official oversight responsibilities, and others - the news media - have an unofficial role. But I would start the list with Mayor Bloomberg.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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