Image as Interest: Occupy & the Pepper Spray Cop

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 Sontagar­gued, 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.”

Nieman Journalism Lab

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