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How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?

The above photograph was taken while we were on a brief hiatus but I figured there would be plenty of time to write about it once we returned after the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Little did I imagine that it would go viral, become a meme, and basically disappear from attention in a period of ten days.

One of the things that we’ve learned in writing this blog for the past three years is that the news cycle can be brutal.  Blink and it has moved on to something more immediately interesting, as if our attention span is incapable of pondering the rightness and wrongness of human behavior for more than the time it takes to click through a slideshow.  But one would hope that genuine acts of unrepentant moral turpitude would not be cast aside so easily or so quickly.  Maybe it is because the image of Mary Anne Vecchio wailing in distress at the murder of Jeffrey Miller at a different student protest in the 1970s is so seared in my consciousness that I find the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students who are the very image of nonviolent rectitude to be so appalling. I taste bile in my mouth every time I look at the image, even now, ten days after first seeing it.

Others have commented on how casual Office Pike appears as he sprays the students, and the point is all the more pronounced in the various U-tube videos that provide live documentation of the event.  Indeed, he looks rather like the weekend gardener in ads I’ve seen selling weed spray, killing the chickweed that has infested his otherwise perfectly green lawn as if it doing so makes him a good neighbor by maintaining property values.  It is no doubt in large measure that sense of nonchalance that has animated the “Officer Pike” meme that became the basis for literally hundreds of appropriations that show the pepper spraying of everything from cuddly kittens to the founding fathers, as well as inserting him into virtually everyone of the major iconic photographs of 20th century U.S. public culture, such as the flag being raised at Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, accidental napalm, the Tiananmen Square tank man, and the photograph of Mary Anne Vecchio at Kent State.

One could go on at some length to analyze these many appropriations, though their production in such a compressed time period, coupled with how quickly they seem to have become irrelevant, makes it difficult to know quite what to make of it all.  There is outrage being expressed at Officer Pike’s nonchalance, to be sure, but also equally heavy doses of adolescent irreverence and cynicism that might lead one to think that the response in general is as much a conditioned, knee jerk reaction as anything at all.

But there is an additional point to be made and one that seems to have been missed by the many commentators and appropriators of the Officer Pike meme.  What makes the scene captured here so morally outrageous is not just that the behavior of the police officer is casual, but that it lacks any moral concern at all, despite the fact that it is being witnessed by hundreds of photographers and videographers.  It is one think to behave casually in ways that might be morally questionable, it is something altogether different to do so in the full light of day and with the knowledge that the world is watching.  Indeed, if anything Officer Pike’s behavior is marked by a conceit that reminds me of the photograph of a lynching that took place in Marian, Indiana in the 1930s where the townspeople are smiling for the camera as they direct attention to the hanging black bodies in the background.  Lacking any sense of shame for the scene in which they found themselves, they pointed with pride to what their community had “accomplished.” The officers in the photograph above—and here I mean to call attention to all of the officers—know that they are being photographed and yet they proceed as if there could be no question but that it is appropriate to shoot pepper spray into the faces of citizens sitting on the ground and posing a threat to no one.  It is, in short, an image of moral hubris that should be anathema to a liberal-democratic public culture that relies for its life blood on civil (and civilized) dissent.

And yet for all that, we seem to have moved on, the viral video little more than one of the millions of u–tube videos that seem to serve the contemporary role of bread and circuses, the Officer Pike meme  an online joke that is on the verge of becoming a trivia question.  And the moral outrage that should haunt us all is lost to the news cycle.

Photo Credit: Louise Macabitis



How Does One Survive a Moral Virus?


9 Responses

  1. Dave McLane says

    Unfortunately, if you keep up with the Tea Party via non-media mailing list(s), the photograph of Officer Pike assaulting students is highly appealing, not appalling, I stumbled upon such a mailing list and decided to keep it coming in the sense of “I keep my friends close to me and my enemies closer.” I’ve found it highly instructive …

  2. Emily Cram says

    John, this is an excellent analysis of what appears to be the diminished capacity of memes to generate collective memory of an event, and I’m particularly moved by your discussion of Pike’s casual behavior when he is knowingly the object of photography. This is especially concerning given that documentation of police violence has been a central tactic of OWS from the start–especially when the public media ignored many of the protest actions in New York. I wonder if even though images of Pike might be lost on a broader digital public, how those images might reverberate for local publics where these cases of violence have taken place. It seems as though there have been several encampments who have activated a moral outrage with their own icons: Scott Olson in Oakland; Dorli Rainy in Seattle; Kaylee Dedrick in NYC; Officer Pike’s violence in Davis. All of these places have used images of violent events in their protests, witnessing their outrage. Perhaps (and hopefully) these acts of local appropriation and memorialization will keep these images alive.

  3. Michael says

    What is missing from much of the commentary on Lt Pike’s image is the continuation of the story. Following his casual violence on the sitting students, students gathered toward the cops and repeated ‘shame on you, shame on you’ in unison over and over again. The cops backed away slowly, looking frightened it may be, or confused, or perhaps just ashamed. Those simple words, ‘shame on you’, uttered so plainly and with such fitness to occasion, should themselves echo constantly through these unfolding events.

  4. lucaites says

    Michael: I saw that on the video too. But what is clear to me is that they were intimidated by the raw power of the collectivity (perhaps what they saw as “the mob”) rather than any reaction to the actual meaning of “shame.” The group could have been chanting anything in unison and it would have had something of the same effect.

  5. Stuart Noble says

    Indeed, it’s a chilling prospect to imagine a police force seemingly unresponsive to any sense of public and moral outrage. What can citizens do when the threat of counter-surveillance has no impact on police behavior?

    However, I’m not so sure the meme has died. I just picked up on this over Twitter, which reminds me of the Ray Noland’s pro-Obama stencils from the 2008 campaign.


    And here’s a recent submission to occupydesign.org.

  6. Michael says

    John: it’s a good point about the force of the students vs the police in that video. My experience of non-violent protest in India has been that it can feel very threatening indeed, and the way in which non-violent protest is used in India, as a common and well-practised tool of political action, can sometimes seem to occur without the clear and plainly announced moral justification we associate with non-violence. Then it looks like violence by another name. BUT in the Davis case, the moral justification was out front and plainly announced — ‘shame on you’ –, and I put it to you that, if the unison of the chant was in itself intimidating, the utterance was what decisively turned the tables. ‘Shame on you’ is de haut en bas, from a parent to a naughty child. Don’t you think we have enough evidence that such moralizing rhetoric can carry the day, that extra push that can take it over the top, non-violently?

  7. Tom says

    A bunch of hemp-wearing hippies who will likely contribute little to nothing to our society. Who care, pepper spray wears off and maybe they will learn to not sit around like a bunch of jack-offs and do something useful with their lives. Oh, by the way, the reason this was forgotton so quickly is because most of America would agree with me. Sorry champs.

  8. Lucaites says

    Tom: The point is not who is being sprayed, its who is doing the spraying and the moral universe that they represent. Last time it was “hemp-wearing hippies”– though truth to tell I don’t see any hemp or hippies in the picture, just citizens–but the next time it could be you in your hard hat or grey flannel suit or ….

    And if “most of America” doesn’t care about that, well, more’s the pity.

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