Pepper Spray as Meme

At the University of California-Davis, a group of student Occupy Wall Street protesters were pepper sprayed by university police for refusing to vacate the campus quad. Thanks to the widespread availability of phones with cameras, the incident was photographed and recorded by dozens of onlookers. As a result, images and videos of the pepper spraying incident have flooded the internet with millions of views.

The image is striking in several ways. First, nearly everyone watching has a camera or cell phone and is documenting the event. Second, there is a strong visual separation of the police and protesters — the police are standing, while the protesters are seated. Third, the police officer who is spraying protesters has a very casual, removed demeanor and stance. There is no direct confrontation occurring to seemingly warrant such an action. The image depicts an imbalance of power, as students crouch and hide their faces from the pepper spray wielded by campus police. The image has so much visual power that it has taken off as an online meme. Consider these variations:

The variations on the original image reinforce the perception that the police officer’s actions were inappropriate and an abuse of power. The use of famous scenes and works of art creates a cartoonish depiction of inequality and injustice, of someone using their power unjustly against those who obviously have less power. Other images present the officer’s actions are an affront to justice, by using images associated with freedom, democracy, or peaceful resistance.

Reproducing this image of injustice online is a form of visual protest, spreading images of perceived injustice in different visual contexts across the internet. The meme is a commentary on how we culturally and historically understand power inequalities and the limits of appropriate uses of power.

Yet, while this is a powerful form of protest that draws important connections, the meme also removes the officer, Lt. John Pike, from the original context of his actions. This runs the danger of focusing on Pike as a lone actor, and not an individual whose actions are shaped within the larger institutional system of justice. (Pepper Spraying Cop and the Power of an Image, 11/24/2011)

As one commentator noted: We can’t lose sight of the fact that systems are constructed and composed of individuals, albeit with vast disparities in the power that constituent individuals and groups wield within and through those systems. I think that the displacement of blame is one of the main tactical failings of modern activism. It plays right into the diffusion of responsibility that repressive institutions like the police rely upon to legitimize their brutality and wash their hands of the moral, psychological, social, legal and physical consequences of their actions. By “only following orders,” the buck is passed around in perpetuity like a hot potato. The Nuremberg trials established that diffused responsibility does not eliminate culpability in the commission of horrific crimes.

And now we have the use of pepper spray to obtain an X-Box on sale.

Isn’t it time we took another look at our institutions and the need for individual responsibility within the context of more democratic decision-making structures? Make democracy the meme, not pepper spray.


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