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Image as interest: How the Pepper Spray Cop could change the trajectory of Occupy Wall Street

Images can convene attention; they can also distribute it.

In his Times column this morning, David Carr wonders about the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement and, specifically, its fate as an ongoing topic of mass-media conversation. “Occupy Wall Street left many all revved up with no place to go,” he writes. Which is a problem, traditional-press-coverage wise, because: “In addition to the 5 W’s — who, what, when, where and why — the media are obsessed with a sixth: what’s next? Occupy Wall Street, for all its appeal as a story, is very hard to roll forward.”

That could be true (though “very hard,” of course, is quite different from “impossible”). And it could also be true that the features that may give Occupy, potentially, enduring power as a movement — its malleability, its permissiveness, its ability to act as an interface as well as an event — might also be the forces that, day to day, challenge its ability to convene attention. Particularly at the level of the mass culture.

It’s worth returning, for a moment, to the idea of trending topics algorithms, which reward discrete events over ongoing movements, favoring spikes over steadiness, effectively punishing trends that build, gradually, over time. (Which is to say: effectively punishing the notion of a “movement” itself.) This bias toward the spiky over the sticky is a defining feature, as well, of the daily workings of the traditional media (and of their great organizational mechanism, the Epiphanator): Occupy’s much-discussed lack of a singular identity has been not only kind of the whole point, but also, to some extent, the result of the way the movement has been mediated by a press that tends to reward newness over endurance. Occupy’s story — like all stories of ongoing political movements that are told by traditional producers of daily journalism — has been told episodically, in staccato rhythms that emphasize explosive ruptures in expectation. (“Expectation,” of course, being defined by the Epiphanator itself.) Occupy is, like so many other movements, subject to “the tyranny of recency.”

But that may well have just changed. This weekend, a series of photographs — images of a riot-gear-wearing cop shooting a group of students in the face with pepper spray — made their transition from journalistic documents to sources of outrage to, soon enough, Official Internet Meme. Perhaps the most iconic image (taken by UC Davis student Brian Nguyen, and shown above) isn’t explicitly political; instead, it captures a moment of violence and resistance in almost allegoric dimensions: the solidarity of the students versus the singularity of the cop in question, Lt. Pike; their steely resolve versus his sauntering nonchalance; the panic of the observers, gathered chorus-like and open-mouthed at the edges of the frame. The human figures here are layered, classified, distant from each other: cops, protestors, observers, each occupying distinct spaces — physical, psychical, moral — within the image’s landscape.

As James Fallows put it, “You don’t have to idealize everything about them or the Occupy movement to recognize this as a moral drama that the protestors clearly won.”

Exactly. The image — and its subsequent meme-ification — marked the moment when the Occupy movement expanded its purview: It moved beyond its concern with economic justice to espouse, simply, justice. It became as much about inequality as a kind of Platonic concern as it is about income inequality as a practical one. It became, in other words, something more than a political movement.

The image itself, I think — as a singular artifact that took different shapes — contributed to that transition, in large part because the photo’s narrative is built into its imagery. It depicts not just a scene, but a story. It requires of viewers very little background knowledge; even more significantly, it requires of them very few political convictions, save for the blanket assumption that justice, somehow, means fairness. The human drama the photo lays bare — the powerless being exploited by the powerful — has a universality that makes its particularities (geographical location, political context) all but irrelevant. There’s video of the scene, too, and it is horrific in its own way — but it’s the still image, so easily readable, so easily Photoshoppable, that’s become the overnight icon. It’s the image that offers, in trending topic terms, a spike — a rupture, an irregularity, a breach of normalcy. It’s the image that demands, in trending topic terms, attention.

And it also demands participation. A key feature of the Epiphanator, the mechanism of press-mediated storytelling that defined our sense of the world for so long, is its impulse to organize time itself into discrete artifacts. Journalists tend to be obsessed with beginnings and, even more importantly, endings. This is how we make sense of things. What’s notable about the Lt. Pike image, though, is how dynamic its path has been — this despite the defining stillness of still photography — by way of the complementary filters of social media and human creativity.

The image of Pike (nom de meme: the Pepper Spray Cop) isn’t the first to reach a kind of iconic status when it comes to Occupy Wall Street. (It’s not even the first to involve pepper spray. See, for example, the horrific image of 84-year-old Dorli Rainey, her face dripping with burn-assuaging milk after being sprayed in Seattle.) But it is the first whose implicit narrative — one of struggle, one of outrage — offers viewers a kind of ethical, and tacitly emotional, participation in Occupy Wall Street. A moral drama that the protestors clearly won. Images, Susan Sontag argued, are “invitations” — “to deduction, speculation, fantasy.” They invite empathy, and, with it, investment.

It remains to be seen whether Pepper Spray Cop, as a singular image and a collection of derivatives, will prove enduring in the way that previous iconic photos — Phan Thi Kim Phúc, Tank Man — have done. But Pepper Spray Cop, and his ad hoc iconography, is a telling case study for observing what happens when political images become, in the social setting of non-traditional media, de- and then re-politicized. And it will be interesting to see whether the image’s viral life will affect David Carr’s question of “what’s next” for Occupy Wall Street in the world of traditional media. “Just a week ago,” NPR noted this morning, “it was starting to seem like the Occupy movement might be running short of fuel.” But “now that movement seems to have fresh energy after a week of police crackdowns across the country.”

Images by Brian Nguyen, Billy Galbreath, Kosso K, the Pepper Spraying Cop Tumblr, and UnlikelyWords.

What to read next
Joseph Lichterman    Aug. 12, 2014
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  • meg

    Great piece. My only disagreement would be in the idea that this was not about power to begin with. Economic inequality was intimately tied to power from the get-go – rich corporations have power in politics and policy making and individuals have no money and no recourse except protest, which is why banks were saved and people lost jobs.  This is just a shift to an example of another power inequality.

  • Nathan Morgan

    As a photojournalist, glad the photo had power to educate and distribute the energy of the movement…but sad that it was at the expense of others.
    Follow @nathanmorgan:twitter 

  • Coconnel51

    Welcome to Media Studies, 101 – circa 1990. 

  • Todd Gitlin

    I love this piece of yours, Megan.

  • kosso

    Very nice and very interesting perspective.  

    Also happy to see my ‘Pike Floyd’ getting around :)

  • kosso
  • AndrewM

    The NPR link doesn’t go directly to the story about the UC Davis incident; might be better to link to:

  • Jeffrey P. Jones

    Very smart; very well-written.  Kudos.

  • AndrewM

    Also, this picture by Wayne Tilcock at The Davis Enterprise was also widely linked and was, I believe, one of the first media sources to identify the “Pepper Spray Cop” as Lt John Pike:

  • Jeffrey P. Jones

    …Except it’s not David Carr, it’s Brian Stelter.  I asked him why not synthesis, analysis, and critique such as that offered typically by his colleague, Alessandra Stanley.  His reply–she offers I point of view, he doesn’t.  Ahem.  Thanks for your “point of view.”

  • kosso

    Btw: Here’s the original ‘Pike Floyd : Dark Side Of The Law’  ;)

  • Andrew Whitacre

    A problem though is how removed — and distracting — this meme is from the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. Granted the movement and its message are intentionally malleable, but who in their right mind wants the storyline to be “us vs. cops”? They want that — and not Wall Street or income inequality or Congressional ethics — to be what potential supporters to focus on?

    Protest movement images we remember are the ones that fit the argument. We remember Bull Connor’s German shepherds because they illustrated the exact abuse people were protesting. But the pepper spraying image, as abhorrent as it is, mainly serves the purpose of protesting police behavior. It’s off-point. For there to be a lasting Occupy Wall Street good-vs-evil meme, it will have to feature Wall Street as the evil.

  • Jeffrey P. Jones

    Not off-point if, as per the retired Philadelphia cop has noted, you recognize that police work for the ruling bloc, which universities are just as much a part of as is Wall St. and the White House. 

  • Stella

    Why do people have a need to interject their persona in an iconic image of a movement?  Why trivialize it with your interjection?  Was it not strong enough?  Did it need visual aides?  Did it need a footprint from others?   That moment belonged to the students at UC Davis and their strength.  I wish that people would stop playing with serious events.  

  • Megan Garber

    Thanks, Meg! Definitely didn’t mean to imply that OWS has ever *not* been about power dynamics — it is, and it always has been. But ideas about (political) power have so far been filtered, very generally speaking, through language about economic power. Occupy’s rhetoric has been (again: very generally speaking) rhetoric about wealth distribution. To me, the weekend saw a shift to something broader. 

  • Megan Garber

    Wow, thanks so much! 

  • Megan Garber

    Much better, you’re right — link updated. Thank you!

  • Megan Garber

    Fantastic point — thanks for it. You’re totally right: Not only is “us vs. cops” not terribly creative as a political frame, but it also won’t be terribly productive if OWS has real ambitions to effect systemic change. 

    What I’m particularly interested in, though, is the dynamic between how OWS sees itself and how members of the public more broadly see it. Seems to me (based, I should say, on the highly subjective evidence that is media portrayals I’ve consumed) that, until recently, the mass perception of OWS was as simply the “Tea Party of the Left,” with all the (generally unflattering) assumptions that went along with that. The movement — in the public consciousness — was associated more with drum circles than with serious discourse. 

    What I think this weekend’s events, and the David-v-Goliath framework they gave rise to, will ultimately mean for the movement has less to do with internal direction and more with external perception. Occupy has moved beyond stereotypes of the Crunchy Unwashed (or whatever), and toward a more inviting image of empathetic humanity. Suddenly, people outside the movement have permission to identify with it.

  • Megan Garber

    Point taken that a lot of the Photoshops of Lt. Pike are silly and, sure, ostensibly trivial, but I don’t see what’s implicitly wrong with that. The modifications people made to the Pike photos ultimately spread those images. They amplified the images’ impact. They allowed people to feel a sense of ownership over the events that took place in Davis. What’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t a movement, ultimately, be all about moving?

  • Megan Garber

    Oh, awesome. Added to the credits — thank you!

  • Megan Garber


  • Megan Garber

    Thank you!

  • Megan Garber

    Wow, thank you. Incredible how much diversity of sentiment these images capture. I can’t believe how chaotic that first image is…especially considering that (I assume) it was taken just seconds after the iconic ones that are notable for their stillness.

  • Geminyo

    It’s not pepper spray cop. His name is John Pike. His phone number and email address were also spread around the web.

  • Andrew Whitacre

    Jeffrey and Megan, I agree with both of you, though a bit more nuancedly (?) with Jeffrey.

    J: I imagine the police, as people, are in a pickle. Systemically speaking, you’re right, police work for the government and the government’s representatives depend both on wealthy donors and many times, intellectually, on universities. Today’s police, though, also have an adversarial relationship with government: like members of other public service unions, they’re being asked to work more for less. I’m kinda surprised we haven’t seen a handful of stories about officers saying, “Yes, I accepted and love a job where I keep the public safe, but this is nuts now. I agree with Occupy. My mayor is telling me to sacrifice time with my kids to put down a protest I agree with. I’m done.”

    M: you’re right too, and perhaps in a way that backs up Jeffrey’s comment. The tragedy of our media environment, whether you support Occupy or not, is that there doesn’t seem to be a way, say, to have a modern Walter Cronkite.

    There’s no superlegitimized spokesman for the middle.

    Vietnam protesters were the Crunchy Unwashed until the Tet Offensive, when Cronkite, to an audience of millions, said, “It is increasingly clear that the only rational way out will be to
    negotiate, not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to the
    pledge to defend democracy.” Who would be the one to convince Wall Street and Congress, as President Johnson was by Cronkrite, that “if I’ve lost [x], I’ve lost middle America”? And if there is that person: God forbid, what would be the financial equivalent of Tet if 2008 wasn’t already it?

  • Brandsilence

    I’d welcome you to prickville but you’ve probably been a resident for some time.

  • Megan Garber

    “There’s no superlegitimized spokesman for the middle” — spot on. I’d wonder, though, whether *a* Cronkite is necessary…or whether a kind of collective Cronkite (what Occupy is trying to be) can be enough of a spokesman for the middle. Perhaps even a more powerful spokesman. I think one of the most interesting questions about Occupy, as a movement and as a communications phenomenon, is whether its collective (almost institutional) voice can prove as powerful as a singular (and singularly human) one. I’d wager, given today’s media environment, that it can.

  • Anonymous

    excellent article. thank you

  • GT

    It’s not pepper spray cop. His name is John Pike and he has the body of an obese woman. His phone number, home address and email address were also spread around the web and people really ought to call him in the small hours of the night to let him know how they feel about his weak moustache. Or better yet, pay him a visit while he’s beating off to re-runs of “Cops”.
    There… fixed it.

  • Maria Bustillos

    Bravo. Just a splendid piece, thank you.

  • Anonymous

    This is all about Free Speech. After all the gov’t (and their corporate cronies) censor the media and ban books like “America Deceived II”.
    Last link of “America Deceived II” before it is completely censored:

  • Benjamin Franklin

    It would never have happened in CHiPS. Or T.J. Hooker for that matter. 

  • Anonymous

    “Exactly. The image — and its subsequent meme-ification — marked the
    moment when the Occupy movement expanded its purview: It moved beyond
    its concern with economic justice to espouse, simply, justice. It became
    as much about inequality as a kind of Platonic concern as it is about
    income inequality as a practical one. It became, in other words,
    something more than a political movement.”

    The image, both this one specifically and all images, does not exist outside of the political, just like concern over inequality from a Platonic perspective is steeped in ideology. The unpacking of this image’s meaning and celebrating it’s escaping the political is profoundly bizarre. It’s become a meme precisely because it is overflowing with ideology, not because it escapes it. Don’t want to sound like a jerk, but you quote Susan Sontag, have you ever read Roland Barthes? Stewart Hall?

  • Richardahooper

    That sicko cop should be punished by being set in concrete and pissed on by any who fancy it. I’d piss on him, the sick fuck.

  • Depro9

    hi everyone this is what started it all. 

    a massive win for the movement! please make you own! ;)

  • Kenji Yamada

    That was yours?  Kudos, it’s the best I’ve seen so far!

  • kosso

    Yup. Many thanks! :)
    Some people have even asked for the PSD to make a tshirt.  

  • Rooney71

    To quote John Stewart….go fuck yourself.

  • Megan Garber

    Not entirely sure what Barthes or Hall have to do with it. Re: Barthes, are you thinking of “Camera Lucida,” or are you getting at something else? And I’m not sure how Hall would apply here, in particular, any more than any number of vaguely contemporary thinkers — Foucault, Said, etc., etc. — who concern themselves with the power dynamics of textuality. Which is pretty much all of them. 

    Speaking of those dynamics, though, it’s interesting how you’re translating the words that you’ve directly quoted from the article above. I never said that the Pike image exists “outside of the political.” I said, rather, that the image allowed Occupy to expand to include other realms in addition to the political. I said — and I’ll commit the most egregious faux pas in the world, the self-quote, to make the point — that the movement, this weekend, “became as much about inequality as a kind of Platonic concern as it is about income inequality as a practical one.” As much as…as it is. The two things, in other words, are not mutually exclusive.

  • Susi Milne

    awesome peice of writing thank you

  • Michael Riordan

    I don’t think that the events at UC Davis- the videos, the photos, the memes, the national coverage- change the storyline to “us vs. cops”.  I think that most of the people that are treating it that way were probably already framing the movement in those terms, at least in part.  I think that the main ways that the Davis incident is likely to affect the broader public perception of the larger OWS movement is to humanize the protestors and to highlight the 1st Amendment issues going on.

    To the first point, I think that the “mainstream” Americans who saw the footage and the images for the first time not on YouTube via their Facebook feed but on Good Morning America or their local news didn’t see rowdy anarchists clashing with police like they had perceived from their previous consumption of coverage on the movement.  They saw young college students- children, truly- who could have been their kids’ friends, their favorite barista, the valedictorian at their child’s high school.  Maybe they even thought of their own children.  They didn’t see the protestors as the “them” that have been stirring up trouble downtown, they saw the “us” that are sitting in the very same living room.

    I also think that most people saw in those images Americans trying to, and being prevented from, exercising their 1st Amendment rights with no ambiguity.  These weren’t images of protestors being flushed out of public parks in the middle of the night on curfew violations, these were very different images of college students sitting in the middle of their campus quad at a public university in broad daylight breaking no law other than an order to disperse.  These students sat together, with their backs turned to the police, determined only to make a point about their right to make a point.  The response of the officers did not fit with what most Americans consider the sacred rights of the 1st Amendment, and I think that there are now a great number of people who had no interest in the message of OWS and have been doing their best to ignore it that now will at least be following events to make sure there aren’t more examples of 1st Amendment restrictions, even if they still aren’t particularly interested in the message of the protestors.

  • Sheens Korner

    Great article……. this is so funny

  • Hsalmon

    The police at this protest were obviously very conflicted. How could they not be? The students were protesting a TUITION HIKE.  Cops are there to defend a rise in the price of a college education? I couldn’t help thinking about the cop who’s trying to send his kid to college, but can’t afford it. Maybe one of those cops (who couldn’t afford tuition) was out there at this event. He’s probably thinking…what am I doing? Who am I???

  • Edi

    The reason the meme works so well is that the image of John Pike now stands for everything that is stupid, fat & lazy, violent, privileged, irrational, cold-hearted, inevitable, unbearable, banal, unfair, anti-democratic, horrific, stale, bankrupt, irredeemable, played-out, mediated, stifling, overbearing, sloppy, chintzy, low-rent, half-assed, monolithic, immovable, unoriginal, dystopian, authoritarian, cartoonish, unsurprising, uninspiring, and all the other discomfiting terms one could come up with to complain about the status quo.

  • Bs Detector

    Didn’t we just bomb the hell our of Libya and murder Gaddafi over the “abuse” of pro democracy protestors?

    When can the USA get some of that action?

  • Autumn

    I prefer no bombings, please.

  • Bora Zivkovic

    We had an interesting discussion about this on G+ ( ) and later on Twitter. It appears that the image on top of your post, the one by Nguyen, is more familiar to  people who did not pay too much attention during the weekend, and mainly got it from a couple of MSM outlets either first thing on Friday, or later on Monday.

    The other photo (your #4), the one that was spun into a meme (your images #2, 3 and 5) was taken by UC Davis psychology student Louise Macabitas who never gets the proper credit for it. That one became iconic to those of us who spent Friday and the weekend following this story with rapt attention online, on blogs and social media, watching the birth of the meme etc.

    So, depending on one’s media diet, one thinks of either the Nguyen photo or the Louise Macabitas photo as “iconic”. I think that meme-making will turn, once some time passes, the Macabitas photo into the one remaining image that everyone remembers as iconic. I also think that this analyzis is spot-on as to why this will happen:

    It is interesting to watch how these things change. Once upon a time, a photographer would take gazillions of photos, choose one from the contact copies, send it to be published in NYTimes, and it becomes iconic. Kind of a pre-publication peer review, or editorial pre-publication filtering.

    But today, the same moment is captured by dozens of cameras from different angles. Hundreds of shots are instantly posted online. The “iconic” one becomes so spontaneously (or at least serendipitously), through a kind of post-publication filtering or peer-review. It has to have some qualities that most viewers find compelling, not just one artist and one editor who may or may not be right about it. But there is also a great element of chance and contingency – the image that goes up fast, or is chosen by an outlet with lots of readers at just the moment when everyone is tuning in, or is not protected by copyright so is easy for bloggers to disseminate, or is great for photoshopping jobs. But it still has to work on the emotional level if it is to succeed and become “iconic”.

  • Mel

    I think you may have this wrong. I don’t think people implicitly believe pictures anymore. Not since photoshop, etc. Most people have learned that a picture can be taken to show only one side of a particular issue using a shock value image taken out of context.

    OWS doesn’t really interest me, but because I found this picture to be disturbing, I did what I think most people would do in our internet society: I searched for more info. At first I found only short videos and stories that only started a few seconds before the spraying started. Then I finally started finding coverage of the rest of the story. The protesters taunted and antagonized the police and did not get much response. It wasn’t until the protesters encircled and blocked the police path back to their vehicles that they got a response. The police were trying to leave. They gave multiple warnings. The police walked up to the students and told them that if they did not move, that they would be subject to use of force.

    In the end, researching the story around the photo did not lead me to any empathy toward OWS. Instead, it lead me to believe that it was taken at an orchestrated event that took much police provocation.

    A couple of videos tell the rest of the story:


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