So here's a thought experiment of sorts.
Let's say you're pulled over by the police for speeding or something, and when the officer asks to see your license, you politely say "No." He asks again, and again you refuse. So he pepper sprays you right in the eyes. Then the officer gets back into his patrol car and drives away. No ticket, no arrest, no nothing.
So what do you think: A proper use of nonlethal force? Because that's pretty much what's happening to Occupy protesters like Dorli Rainey.
No doubt it is illegal to block an intersection, and when the police issue a verbal order to disperse, that is arguably a lawful order. Failure to obey that order could result in a citation or arrest, just like refusing to show your drivers license during a traffic stop. But as long as you remain peaceful and make no effort to resist arrest, what this refusal does not justify is a physical assault.
Citizens who engage in civil disobedience do so knowing that they risk arrest; in some cases they actually welcome it. And if police and prosecutors choose to accommodate by filling our jails and our courts with peaceful protesters, that's up to them. But physically assaulting protesters for refusing to obey an order, lawful or otherwise, should not be an option for officers of the peace.
I'm not suggesting the officers' job is easy. It's not. And I freely admit that a small minority of Occupy protesters have occasionally attempted to intentionally provoke a violent response. But just because a force is "nonlethal" does not give the police the right to use it indiscriminately, as they have on several occasions against 84-year-old Rainey and many other peaceful protesters and observers.
Officers and their commanders need to remind themselves that by the SPD's own policy (.pdf), "less lethal" weapons like pepper spray are intended as "alternatives to the use of deadly force." They are not meant to be used as a convenient means of crowd dispersal. They are not intended as some sort of righteous street justice against disruptive protesters. Essentially, if the officer wouldn't otherwise shoot the person in the face, he has no business pepper spraying him.
(For anyone seeking to dismiss pepper spray as much ado about nothing, you should read Brendan's personal account of his own excruciating, ball-burning dousing outside the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Pepper spray, as Brendan points out, is banned for wartime use by Article I.5 of the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which was ratified by the United States in 1993. And according to the ACLU, it is documented to sometimes cause permanent injuries, and even death.)
If protesters are breaking the law and refuse to desist in response to a lawful order, the police have the right to arrest them. Yes, mass arrests can be time consuming and labor intensive. And yes, calmly surrounding the protesters, cuffing them, and hauling them off one by one sure does take a long time to clear out a blocked intersection. But, you know, it's their job.
Civil disobedience can be awfully inconvenient to authorities. In fact, that's kinda the point.
But unless the police believe they have no other choice but to open fire on the crowd, then they have no right to viciously, remorselessly, and lazily resort to the use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians.