Far from Kent State: The UC Davis Pepper Sprayings through a Lens of Technological and Cultural History

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?)



11 responses to “Far from Kent State: The UC Davis Pepper Sprayings through a Lens of Technological and Cultural History

  1. evelyneleanor

    The juxtaposition of these protests is very interesting. Is the UC Davis protest an OWS protest or is it related to something else.
    Obviously the fatality of the Kent State image kept it from being a joke, while the UC Davis imagry has become has an entire tumblr dedicated to the meme. (see peppersprayingcop.tumblr.com) But, could it also be because of a change in the nature of protest in society?
    It’s be really helpful if you linked to the photographs you mention.

    • I made the mistake of assuming that it was implicit that the UC Davis protests were Occupy protests. I’ll make that edit shortly, and add direct links to the photograph of Lt. Pike popularized by Reddit and to the photograph of Rainey. Thank you for catching those gaps.

      When you refer to a “change in the nature of protest,” are you talking about Brandzel’s ideas? If so, would you like to make the connection clearer for me in this context, and if not, would you like to add more to that thought?

      • My idea is more closely related to the thoughts of Gladwell in “The Revolution will not be Tweeted.” If we are a society prone to low stakes protest (like tweeting about something, or liking a group on facebook), are we going to produce and reproduce imagery akin to the harrowing image from the Kent State Massacre?
        In other words, have recent protests and reactions to recent protests (especially in the US) been that serious? Or do we, as a society, let these occurrences roll off our shoulders and joke about them (like all the memes)?

        Not really a question you need to answer in your post, but an interesting question nonetheless.

  2. evelyneleanor

    In response to your questions:

    If the image of Dorli Rainey had not been drowned out by that of UC Davis and had been properly circulated, a lot of the misconceptions that OWS is mostly a young-person’s movement might be eradicated. Here is an 84 year old woman, pepper sprayed in OWS. She’s fighting just as hard as the underemployed college student or recent graduate. That’s just speculation, but I think it is rather plausible.

    The Photograph of Dorli Rainey is very striking, especially with the central composition of her face in the image. But, the UC Davis imagery plays to what many people already think happens in OWS – young people making a fuss. OWS seems to be a young person’s movement (or at least that is one of the stereotypes that we should be demystifying) and it is always easier to get people to stand up for ideals they already posses. In this example, the connection of youth to Occupy Wall Street. This steryotype, combined with the linkage to the Kent massacre, combined with the easy meme-ability of the UC Davis imagery, puts Dorli Rainey in the background.

  3. coffeeshoprhino

    It also seems the OWS image of the cop has become so ubiquitous that it loses impact. Most especially as it was Photoshoped into so many different images. Including many different famous works of art, such as Michelangelo’s fresco on the Sistine ceiling.

    • There’s also an element of manipulation in the Kent State photograph – Filo airbrushed out a fence post for visual effect – but this seems to have contributed more to its impact than its ubiquity. Because your point about impact is discussed in the (fascinating) essay “Weeping Over Bluish Leaves” by James Elkins, I would recommend that essay to the arts bloggers here if they have not yet read it.

  4. Pingback: Santa Monica College Students Doused In Pepper Spray While Protesting Tuition Hikes « Times of Texas

  5. Pingback: Santa Monica College Students Doused In Pepper Spray While Protesting Tuition Hikes « Times of Texas

  6. Pingback: So, what is Occupy Wall Street anyways? | Occupy Wall Street Analysis

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