A row of students sits on the strip of pavement that separates West from East Quad, huddling from the orange mist of pepper spray from the can wielded by Lt. Pike. Pike’s helmet has sunken to obscure his eyes, leaving only his nose and mouth as visual reminders of his humanity. He is the focal point of the picture, the only moving figure on a canvas of sitting bodies, a crowd held back by police forces, and the lenses of at least a dozen cameras. The wheat field of photographic devices is a background testament to the many ways to record and instantly share events. However, some feature of the pictures taken on 18 November 2011 garnered a stronger emotional response and a wider spread of virality than had other non-Wall-Street images from the “Occupy” movement.
The UC Davis photographs attracted global indignation of the type accorded the “lone protestor facing a tank near Tiananmen Square” (Hariman and Lucaites 201) as viewers responded to the unarmed protestor/students at the mercy of a power depicted as grossly overpowered and unjust (Iyer). The attention on the incident also raised further awareness of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and similar protests across the United States. Modern popular activism is dependent on a huge, shared emotional experience. Following the fervor and subsequent furor over Kony-2012, Teju Cole argued that the “White Saviour Industrial Complex” churns out sentimentality to validate concurrent support of aggressive foreign policy. After the pepper spray incident at UC Davis, the same society that had winked at corporations “too big to fail” and allowed a nation’s priorities to shift from education to other aspirations was now in arms to defend the students that had been put into their financial dilemma through those actions. The growing popularity of the 2011 “Occupy” movement made voters increasingly aware of the dissonance between their actions (supporting foreign interests and homeland security) versus their current needs (financial stability). With the photographs at UC Davis, the public received a stage “adapted to the deep problems in the public culture at the time” (Harriman and Lucaites 202).
An iconic photo, by Hariman and Lucaites’ reckoning, “provides a performance of social relationships that provide a basis for moral comprehension and response” (204). In the photograph of students being pepper-sprayed, the public sees prostrated students (the future of the nation) being attacked by a police officer (whose job is to protect the students on his campus). In the same way that hardened soldiers are reluctant to kill an unmarked enemy (Hariman and Lucaites 203), law enforcers should be reluctant to harm recumbent civilians. The Tiananmen “Tank Man” successfully stopped a mile-long column of armoured tanks that would not crush him (Iyer), but one officer felt that the threat posed by a row of sitting students was sufficient to warrant pepper spray. There is, too, a discrepancy between the severity of the pepper spray assault and Pike’s almost-nonchalant carriage, which spurred the creation of the “casually pepper spray everything cop” page on Know Your Meme – another indicator of the photograph’s viral resonance and the public’s attempts to reconcile its reactions. The reproduction of the image across multiple forms of media and its discussion and dispersal beyond the local UC Davis community mark it as an iconic image of 2011.
1: What was your reaction to seeing photos or videos of the pepper spray incident at UC Davis? Did you do further research into the Occupy movement as a result of that? Were you more involved with the protests as a result?
2: In “Photographing the Vietnam War,” Kim’s story is bookended by the first photo of her as a terrified girl with napalm burns and the Life photo of her as a mother. According to Harriman and Lucaites, the pain and guilt felt by the US public was resolved by seeing Kim reconcile her physical scars with new life. What, if any, reconciliation happened for the pepper spray photographs?