Does the ‘Casually Pepper Spraying Cop’ Meme Undermine the Seriousness of the Issue?

24 Nov
just watering my hippies

The original image of Lt John Pike spraying students

The initial video is intense, but what seems to stand out is the casual nature of the action. The protesters being attacked are not screaming and chanting. They are quietly sitting on a footpath preparing to be sprayed. They know it is coming yet they still refuse to move. They are bound by their conviction to stay. The police involved also know what is coming. They are not granted the option of backing down. They have been charged with the duty of clearing the path at any cost. Neither side is here for fun. Both have a job to do. The officers prepare themselves and with grim determination, they carry out their obligation without rage, malice or mockery.

I feel that the central point here is that the torture of people exercising their right to peaceful assembly has become so mechanised that it is something that can be performed as casually by a school rent-a-cop as a grounds keeper watering the lawn. It is this casual normalisation of inhuman acts of violence which the meme highlights. Pictures which place the officer in different contexts show how an action which has become normalised in American culture to the point where people can callously claim that they deserved it because they are hippies/students/unemployed/inarticulate. By shifting the context of the action, it forces the viewer to reassess their perspective of normalcy.

Say we view the initial scene as normal; what if the cop were spraying a self immolating monk? Or the writers of the american constitution? Or defacing a priceless artwork? Could we ignore that as easily as we are able to ignore violence against people who have placed themselves in the line of fire by voicing concerns that the current system is guilty of symbolically defacing the constitution?

Far from diluting the message, I think this meme clarifies it. The message is not the passion, the pain or the jeers from onlookers. The message is that we as a culture have been conditioned to look away from the brutality perpetrated on western soil while condemning what we see in developing countries. There is only so much rage people can feel before they want to look at something else. This meme puts the message into a form where it can be more widely received, understood, and spread.

If the establishment is presented as a monster, people will be afraid. They will live their “respectable” lives and actively distance themselves from those who would challenge the stasis quo. If the establishment is a joke and becomes the subject of ridicule and scorn, people will cease to fear it.

Those in power know how to respond to violence and outrage. But if the language is changed through viral memes like this, then their rhetoric will cease to be effective.

If they hit us and we cry about it, they are bullies. If they hit us and we laugh about it, they are impotent and powerless to silence our message.

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Posted by on November 24, 2011 in Political


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