One of many videos from the scene: this one shows Lt. John Pike stepping over the protesters and includes a second cop deploying pepper spray.
On the afternoon of November 18, 2011, a group of peacefully-assembled Occupy student protesters were pepper-sprayed directly in their faces. Onlookers recorded this police action with their cell phones, uploading image and text updates to the internet. As the images spread, commentators both in and out of the mainstream media began comparing the event to the Kent State shootings of 1970 (Kennicott). This is in part because “protest images that become iconic show us faces in anguish” (Judkis), and arguably in part because of how the images and news were disseminated.
A sample news report on the Kent State shootings.
While the Kent State shootings did see coverage as soon as the night of and the day after, both on television and in the newspapers (which is where John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph was disseminated), those mediums are still not as immediate and personal as the internet. After Louise Macabitas’s photograph of Lt. Pike using the spray was posted on Reddit, meme versions of the image arose and quickly proliferated (Jardin). The institution of UC Davis faced protests in response to the incident, which is where most of the backlash seems to have been concentrated outside of the internet, and various already-existing Occupy sites expressed solidarity; after the Kent State shootings, not only were there student protests across the United States but there was a large protest in Washington, DC less than a week later (Doyle).
The Kent State/Cambodia Incursion protest in DC – around 100,000 attended.
The comparative lack of nationwide, in-person turnout after the UC Davis incident would seem to support Gladwell’s position that the “weak ties” of the internet do not often lead to “high risk” activism. However, it could be argued that the lack is due in part to there being no fatality and, by extension, less emotional impact. Either way, because there is no period so remote as the recent past, it is still difficult to accurately gauge whether the UC Davis incident has had an outsize cultural impact. Creating imagery that is then made indelible through both common media and memes is one thing; being a catalyst for significant change is something else entirely.
(Food for thought, or for the “arts in the movement” bloggers among our colleagues: had the photograph of Dorli Rainey, discussed by Jardin, not been superseded by the UC Davis imagery, could the discourse around OWS be different today? Why was it superseded in the first place?)