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The Scent Of Pepper Spray Is In The Air

A police officer uses pepper spray on seated Occupy demonstrators at the University of California, Davis, on Nov. 18, 2011.
Thomas K. Fowler
A police officer uses pepper spray on seated Occupy demonstrators at the University of California, Davis, on Nov. 18, 2011.

Just in the past few days:

  • In Baton Rouge, La., joggers concerned about a recent attack on a runner are carrying pepper spray.
  • In Missoula, Mont., a woman files a complaint against a man for pepper-spraying her golden retriever.
  • In Denver, Colo., inmates say law enforcement officials have used pepper spray excessively.
  • Have you noticed? The acrid aroma of pepper spray is everywhere. Maybe it's time to pause and reflect on the suddenly prevalent repellent.

    Pepper spray has become so commonplace in contemporary and chaotic America, it's even being marketed as a holiday gift. "It makes a great stocking stuffer," says Carlos Crespo, according to the Military Times. Crespo owns Rose Guardian, a company that offers stylish self-protection products to women. "It's not a typical gift. It's something that shows you care and it makes a difference, not like a blouse or something that will go into a closet and never get used."

    Employed wisely, it can be an effective critter and creepster deterrent. Misused, it can mess somebody up. For the uninitiated, pepper spray — a concoction including chemicals and chili pepper extract — burns the eyes and the skin. Originally, it was used mostly by agents of the law. The FBI began carrying it in the 1980s. Use by local police escalated in the 1990s, often for crowd control.

    Rose Guardian offers stylish self-protection products to women, including "Military Wife" pepper spray.
    / Rose Guardian
    Rose Guardian
    Rose Guardian offers stylish self-protection products to women, including "Military Wife" pepper spray.

    Now pepper spray is available to just about everybody. Wal-Mart offers the VEXOR, a personal spray "designed to be used for self-defense in your home, RV or camper to stop intruders instantly." Rose Guardian sells little aerosol cans disguised as blush-on brushes and iPhone cases. Sprays labeled "Military Wife" and "Licensed Practical Nurse" — among others — are available. As is the pink Help Fight Breast Cancer! version.

    Can Hello Kitty pepper spray be far behind?

    Mixed With Tears

    The irritating lachrymatory agent is featured in Peace, Love and Pepper Spray, a new coffee-table book about protest in America. The chapter on pepper spray features depictions of sprayings of a teacher in New York, college students in California, protesters in Washington and others.

    "I only hope," author Amber Lyon writes in the introduction, "that the threat of pepper spray will never prevail over the voice of the American people."

    Pepper spray may never prevail over the voice, but it can really do a number on the eyes. Ask someone who has been on the receiving end.

    For Susanna Martin — a copy editor for a medical publisher in Philadelphia — the memory of being pepper sprayed is everlasting.

    In the spring of 1995, Martin — then a college student — joined with thousands of protesters in and around City Hall Park in New York City. "We were planning to march on Wall Street," she says, "because we were angry that finance and real estate interests were getting heavy subsidies for transforming the city to meet their own needs while Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani and Gov. [George] Pataki were making public higher education too expensive for low-income students."

    The protesters "had decided not to negotiate with the police about our march route," Martin says, "because other marches had been denied permits to march on Wall Street and because we wanted to disrupt the functioning of the financial district."

    The park was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of police. Order turned to disorder. Martin was pepper-sprayed in the face. "The pepper spray was wet," she says, "or at least it seemed to be wet because it was mixed with my tears."

    The mist "stung my eyes something fierce," she says. "It hurt for a few hours, but I remember feeling better by about three or four hours later, when we were outside the police precinct waiting for our friends to be released."

    What hurt the most, she recalls, "was being made physically helpless, which was terrifying."

    The Protojournalist is an experiment in reporting. Abstract. Concrete. @NPRtpj

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    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.