In Defense of Oneself

I stood in the backyard in Berkeley (behind the tree, next to Marion’s easel and paints) and flicked off the little red safety.

Marion was inside, in our dirty kitchen, heating water for pasta while dicing sausage for sauce. If I don’t come back in a few minutes, I had told her, something is wrong. She had laughed at me.   

I pointed the capsule towards the ground. I offered a licked finger to the wind, but it didn’t cool. It was a still July evening in the East Bay. Check for a breeze, my boyfriend Jared had told me, and then you can test it. You won’t be able to use it when you need it if you don’t test it.

I wrapped the capsule’s Velcro handle around my fingers, and pushed the trigger down.

Not much happened. A stream of liquid coursed out. Fixated, I held the plastic down a little too long, then pulled my finger up too slowly at the end—the fluid dribbled, pooled on the ground. A successful test, and now I knew. It only took one press of the button: brief, decisive. The packaging said the capsule contained 20 sprays, and that one had been worth maybe 2. At the end of the summer, I still had 18 left.

I flicked the little red safety on, and went back inside the house. I tucked the capsule into a pocket of my purse, easily accessible to desperate hands, and went into the kitchen to help Marion with the sauce.  

 

***

 

The active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, an oily resin that makes eyes burn and swell shut. It’s the same stuff that makes a good salsa. Last spring, chopping jalapeños for chili, I got a little juice on my hands and forgot to wash them. Thirty minutes later, after an absentminded rub of the eyes, I found myself bent double over a gushing sink, trying desperately to pry my eyelids open so I could flush them out. It felt like I was going blind. Even when I managed to force my lashes up, light and air made my whites and pupils sizzle, my vision blur. This pain came down to capsaicinoids, the compounds that make up oleoresin capsicum and determine its strength. The habeñero pepper rates 350,000 Scoville heat units. Pepper spray rates over five million.

A 1994 US Department of Justice report makes a strong argument for pepper spray as a weapon. It’s more potent than mace, affecting not only on the eyes, but the breath— inhaled spray swells mucous membranes along airways. Pepper spray rarely kills but almost always incapacitates, providing a viable alternative to guns and even tasers. Unlike tear gas, it works just as deftly on the drugged and drunk. It doesn’t linger on clothes; ventilation, soap, and water clean it right up. It’s great for riot control but banned in international war.

Civilians have access to the same caliber of pepper spray that law enforcement officials do. Sometimes it’s misused, but not often. Another Department of Justice report, last updated in 2011, documents 63 cases of death in police-civilian interactions where pepper spray was involved. Of these cases, most credited the cause of death to heart conditions or drug overdoses. In the few cases where pepper spray did link closely to victim death, causing positional asphyxia, it did so by exacerbating pre-existing asthma or other respiratory conditions.

 

***

 

I bought the spray last summer while working in the Tenderloin, a pocket of San Francisco named for an analogous neighborhood in New York City. Urban myth credits the name to a ‘hazard pay’ bonus for law enforcement officials, cash that the cops put towards fine cuts of meat. There are other namesake rumors: paid-off bribes (more money to eat well) and prostitute thighs (a different kind of flesh).   

Bad things happen everywhere. This is what I tell my nervous grandparents every time I pack a suitcase. One gathers stray caresses in Prague public squares, shares bedrooms with suspicious strangers in São Paulo hostels. But men also follow footsteps in the heart of affluent Cambridge, and malls get shot-up in my own small Oregonian town. Really, no city is immune. One must travel anyway.

The Tenderloin’s statistics, while troubling, are brighter than Rio’s or Harlem’s. And yet, this place shook me; it scared me.

The first day I went into the office, I mistakenly exited BART a few blocks too far from the building. To get where I needed to be, I had to cut through Civic Center-UN Plaza.

Civic Center-UN Plaza is officially the home of the glistening San Francisco United Nations building, bounded on one end by a city hall on a hill. Unofficially, it’s home to a huge encampment of homeless men, women, and children. There are needles in arms, wheelchairs, rooted up trash cans, women in short skirts soliciting, women in long skirts screaming. There is hunger there, the pervasive smell of urine. Cops with large guns stand outside the government buildings, surveying the squalor with guns slung across their chests. It’s far from a slum. There are theaters in the Tenderloin, and restaurants, and schools. Still, it is something to break a heart: to watch the men with briefcases and women in blazers walking at a clip, brushing off need like a pesky fly; to crane a neck at those government palaces, looking down on their Americans with chilled apathy.

The first day I went to the office, I was wearing a knee length skirt. That day I would learn that this look was too formal for the office’s casual vibe—and also, that this was much too much leg to go incognito. I had my phone in my hand (big mistake) cluelessly staring at a map. By the time I got to the center of the Plaza, and realized that I should have traced the perimeter, it was too late to stop.

“Hey beautiful,” a man leered, lurching in front of me. Whistles sprouted from points on the square. The sun was bright. I vaguely processed, heart throbbing, that I was getting too much attention. Too many eyes were on my legs, and on my purse. It was 10 am (I had been asked to come in late that day) so no other employee was out on the street. I was being followed, surrounded. Stubble floated in and out of my vision, deep voices in and out of my ears. I tried to decide: Should I smile? Should I frown? Which would provoke less of a response? I made it to the door of the building, fumbled with the lock. When the surly security guard let me in, I was sweating.

My least favorite part of each day was walking to and from work. Sitting at my cubicle, time ticking towards 4 o’clock release, I would shiver at the screams wafting up from the sidewalk—the cries of one woman, the same each day. My second day, walking from office to BART with a fellow intern, I made eye contact with a woman sitting on the ground. She stood, yelled, and pitched trash at me, hitting the side of my face. I covered my head with my purse and power walked for the BART entrance. The next week, I watched a man pick up a needle and inject it into his arm at the bottom of the subway stairs.

To get to and from my house in Berkeley, I walked down Shaddock Avenue, away from the tourist ice cream shops and into quieter residential areas. A man got down on his knees and proposed, citing my smile and eyes as rationale for wanting to marry me. A man on a bike shrieked as he careened into my path, shirtless and wild-haired. Two men called out to me as I strolled to work; when I didn’t look back at them, they whispered “bitch, you bitch” and wove through the crowd to keep up with me. I picked up my pace. That was usually my tactic: move faster.

I hate to admit how scared I was—I, who carry a stamped passport, I, who know the tactics to defend myself—a poke to the eye, a knee to the groin—and the right words to yell—‘Fire!’ or ‘Get away from me!’—and the wrong things to do—no solo taxi rides late at night, don’t wear your flashiest jewels on BART, don’t engage anyone on the street in conversation. The experiences I catalogued were disconcerting, but I know (and knew then) that they were far from true horrors.

I felt elitist in my fear, petty for wanting to protect myself. These were people without access to toilets or nutritious food, people with yellow eyes and sallow skin. Most of those who yelled at me were obviously out of their minds—schizophrenics, or deranged from drugs. My fear didn’t strip me of compassion, but it did make it impotent. Instead of handing out bottles of water and Band-Aids, I was scuffing past the debris, secluding myself in a cubicle, getting away from it all at any cost. On the train, I thought about the Gospel healings—equating the lepers and spirit-possessed screamers of Galilee to the junkies in the Tenderloin. What a thing it would be to make illnesses jump into pigs, to make this nation well.

 

***

 

Pepper spray is legal in all 50 states. In some, like my home Oregon, that’s a general ‘go ahead;’ in others, it’s qualified. In California, I could order a capsule on Amazon, provided I was over 18 and purchasing less than 2.5 liquid ounces. Most of the regulations are of the non-minor, non-felon sort. Many states restrict carrying in public places like schools. Of course, abuse is a crime, and pepper spray cannot be carried onto planes.

When I returned to Boston with spray in hand this fall, a local told me I was a criminal, that you needed a firearms permit to carry pepper spray or mace in Massachusetts, and that you could only purchase them from a registered firearms dealer. That regulation has changed, though; the local was ill-informed. As of September 2014, a provision in a new piece of state gun legislation makes it no longer necessary to carry a permit to buy. (Massachusetts had previously been the only state with such a rule in place.) You still have to buy from a dealer, and you can’t order through the mail.

The other interns in my office carried pepper spray. My parents advised me to get some. But ultimately, I ordered a capsule of Sabre because Jared asked me to. He came to visit me for a week, walked my streets. We ate yellow curry in Berkeley, hiked from Ghirardelli Square to the Golden Gate Bridge. We also went to my office together. After his plane ride home, I received an email. It contained several links to Amazon pages.

Please, please buy at least one of these. They cost practically nothing and they're a good investment for you even post-San Francisco, since you'll almost certainly be jogging and commuting in urban environments.I do think it will make you feel a little more secure and empowered.

I want you to get serious about learning to defend yourself.

 

***

 

Growing up, my dad kept a baseball bat under my parents’ bed. He has retained all his muscles and used to play shortstop in high school. I have no doubt he could seriously wound or even kill an intruder with a few fell swings.

When I walk through a parking lot after a late night movie, I hold my car key between my fingers, ready to enter into an eye or slide up a nostril. In middle school, us girls sat on the gym floor with the physical education teacher and identified other common purse items that could be used as weapons: a comb, an uncapped pen.

My grandfather has owned guns all my life. He takes them to the Alaskan wilderness to hunt, hangs the heads of the animals around his pole barn.

But baseball bats are for baseball, keys are for driving, combs for brushing, pens for writing, and in this case, guns for hunting. There was something different about buying this spray.

What does it mean to carry something meant for hurting, and only for hurting? To carry it from a house in Berkeley, through the stiff air of the subway, down the blocks of the Tenderloin, into Celtic Coffee to get a Thai iced tea, and into a law school where women wear pearls?   

On a practical level, it would mean simply this: if someone came at me with a knife, or a gun, or a bicep, on my way to work or going home or going out, I would have a few extra seconds to escape, to shout for help, to get out my phone and dial three numbers. And that felt good. That’s why women buy this little container of liquid: to keep us out in the streets, going to work for legal think tanks, and having fun with friends.

On a philosophical level, it felt strange, even wrong. Nothing happened to me that summer in San Francisco except those catcalls—at most, there was the incident with the trash. I always walked to work in daylight. I never witnessed any crimes.  

And yet, I learned to avoid the inconvenience of others’ suffering—even though doing so made my conscience groan. I always picked a man in a suit to follow. I covered my wide eyes with sunglasses, and cast them down. I converted my nervous smile to a flatline frown. I never held my phone outside of my bag, and I clenched that zippered bag under an arm. I wore pants instead of skirts. I took the shortest way around the block. I held my breath to keep the urine stench out. I waited eagerly for market days, where the plaza was filled with stalls of zucchini and berries and I was assured an undisturbed walk. And I had that little canister in my purse: tested, ready to really hurt someone, someone on the kinds of drugs and with the kind of lung conditions one acquires from living outside that, with oleoresin capsicum in the mix, could maybe, it’s possible, result in death.

 

***

 

There are plenty of make-it-yourself pepper sprays on the Internet. Most recipes require crushed chili peppers and ground black pepper, heated and strained. Some claim Tabasco sauce will do the trick. Generally, the comments are more horrifying than the instructions.

 

If a man dares to hurt me or rape me then I would do everything I could and if he goes blind he deserves it. He's evil and should be punished. If he's blind he will never do it again that's for sure.

 

A knife would be backup to the pepper spray in case that does not subdue them.

 

This pepper spray is a good one to use on incoming border crossers btw.

 

There’s fear here, and perverted righteousness, too. I don’t trust the administrators of that justice—including myself.

 

***

 

As we strolled from a Tenderloin theater, a man grabbed my friend Ben by the arm, clung to it like a child, and wished him Happy Birthday again and again. The week before I arrived, Civic Center bloodied with an afternoon shooting and a woman named Kate was killed on the piers. One July day, there was a stabbing on the BART line I took to Berkeley; someone had knifed a transit employee while he stood post in his booth.

Nothing out of the ordinary for a city, but just enough to sustain my fear. It fed on of urban myths about meat and newspaper headlines about violence, on the worries of those who loved me, on possibilities. Fear settled itself over innocents, fogged my judgment. Nothing happened to me, and I did nothing. I rode BART in guilt. Women slumped in their seats trying to sleep, men with black garbage sacks mumbled songs to themselves, and I tried to focus on my book. Making eye contact would probably be okay—but what if it wasn’t? So I didn’t.

The pepper spray felt ridiculous. Could I even whip out the capsule in time, flick off that safety, press the button for the right duration and with the right force, when I really needed to? I wasn’t sure if I could. I was glad that I had it, sometimes: when the sky got dusky, or I heard the “bitch” whispers snaking behind me. The pragmatist rejoiced at those moments. Of course, I could hurt them if I needed to. I could and I would, I told myself. It was legal, I was exercising my shot at self-defense. But the idealist was saddened by my acquiescence to fear—my impulse to fight off the dangerous world with tooth, nail, and spray. I couldn’t tell how justified that impulse was.