Back from a quick European tour — Bratislava, London, Paris in two weeks. The trip inspired several previous posts. It proved grueling, not just due to jet lag but also to a logistically over-complicated travel schedule involving four plane flights, four train trips, multiple passages through the customs lines of four countries, and more travel on local transportation than I can enumerate. Managed to get no more than two full nights’ sleep during the entire expedition. Perhaps I’ve gotten too old for this — especially as it was all economy-class. Preparing for a short trip to Miami in early December, after which no planned travel until spring. More posts about the recent trip in the making. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about memes. — A. D. C.
John Heartfield it’s not, but the viral photocollage campaign immortalizing the nonchalant thuggery of Lt. John Pike, the campus policeman at UC Davis who was documented on Friday, November 18, pepper-spraying peacefully seated Occupy-movement protesters, reaffirms that the roots of photocollage lie in vernacular image-making rather than modernist high-art practice while demonstrating that its reach has now become instantaneous and worldwide. (Best video to start with: “Viewing the UC Davis Pepper Spraying from Multiple Angles,” from Andy Baio’s blog Waxy, which coordinates four different videos of the event so you see different perspectives, split-screen.)
New iterations of this meme proliferate rapidly even as you read this. Just visit the aptly named Pepper Spraying Cop site at Tumblr and the Lt. Pepper’s Lonely Art Meme Band at Facebook, both of which gather prime examples of this spontaneous, collective outpouring. (Or Google Pike’s name and click on the Images menu.) In addition to its insertion into paintings as varied as Munch’s “The Scream,” Picasso’s “Guernica,” Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,”and Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” Pike’s paunchy, swaggering, malevolent figure has already found its way into such famous photographs as Robert Capa’s “Death of a Loyalist Soldier,” 1936; Alexander Gardner’s “A Harvest of Death,” made at Gettysburg on July 4, 1863; and Malcolm Browne’s image of Thích Quảng Đức during his self-immolation in Saigon, Vietnam, almost exactly a century later (June 11, 1963).
Pike, if you need reminding, got famous by parading beefily along a line of peacefully seated University of California-Davis protestors in Robocop gear, hitting their faces with massive doses of pepper spray from a distance of about 18 inches. (Pike weighs in at 245 pounds, at last report, about twice the heft of most of the protesters.) The pepper spray he used has been identified as MK-9, which, according to various websites, has a recommended minimum distance of six feet, for delivery in one-second bursts at most. Notably, the 39-year-old Pike did so not as an inexperienced rookie but as the senior officer in charge at the scene, with 10 years on the job at UC Davis and a chain-of-command mandate to model correct procedure for the officers under him. (As one of four lieutenants on the force, he supervises more than one-third of the sworn officers on the suburban campus near Sacramento, including the investigations unit.)
I’m fascinated by the fact that Pike had to be aware of the presence of multiple cameras; the videos and still images of the event posted online were made from a diversity of vantage points, none hidden, and show numerous onlookers using cameras, cellphones, and tablets to record the event. Yet not only doesn’t Pike care, he seems to relish the moment, stepping placidly over the backs of a line of seated students, waving his arm wide like a ringmaster introducing an act to display his spray can to the crowd, then starting his devastating little stroll. Looks to me like a man eagerly volunteering to serve as the latest poster boy for police brutality. (If I were casting the docudrama, I’d want James Gandolfini for this role.)
Pike’s boss, UCD Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, initially lied shamelessly to the press by claiming that the officers felt threatened because the students had surrounded them and the situation had turned “volatile,” whereas the videos show clearly that the sprayed students were sitting with arms locked, in no conceivable way posing any danger to the police, while the standing students kept a safe distance away. In an interview shortly after the event, Spicuzza told the Davis Enterprise that she’s “very proud” of her officers. “I don’t believe any of our officers were hurt,” she says, “and I hope none of the students were injured.”
Pretty to think so. Here’s Gizmodo’s story on “What Pepper Spray Does to Your Body.” And here’s a 1999 report on its effects from the North Carolina Medical Journal by Dr. C. Gregory Smith, a physician who serves as an expert witness on the subject. Judge for yourself whether Pike’s action caused any harm. Or, by way of corrective, consider the opinion of Kamran Loghman, one of pepper spray’s developers, who told the New York Times, “I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents.”
Spicuzza’s disgraceful ignorance of the effects of this weapon with which she’s armed her patrols provides, in and of itself, sufficient prima facie evidence of professional incompetence to justify her dismissal. Moreover, by the standards laid out in the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals on the 1999 Humboldt County (CA) case, the UC Davis use of pepper spray was not only patently unjustified but a violation of constitutional rights. Again, Spicuzza’s shocking unawareness of this ruling, and her failure to educate her officers about it, constitute further grounds for firing her. (The claim by Fox News’s Megyn Kelly and Bill O’Reilly that pepper spray “is a food product, essentially” boggles the mind. Sure, kids, you can keep a can around the kitchen and use it to spice up that vegetable made famous by Ronald Reagan, catsup. Here’s a satiric video in which “Martha Stewart Pepper Sprays Her Turkey.”)
Spicuzza subsequently denied that she authorized the use of pepper spray (although she issued it to her troops), or that university chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi did so either. But some of the videos recording the minutes before Pike’s unprovoked attack clearly show the lieutenant and at least one other officer in radio contact with one or more persons. If not Spicuzza, their commanding officer, then who?
Both of the just-named university officials have gone into in classic CYA mode. Clearly, despite their initial expressions of support for the officers, they’ve started to put as much distance as they can between themselves and these goons, initiating the predictable process of painting them as “bad apple”/rogue exceptions to the otherwise surely benign UC Davis force . . . none of whom, you’ll note from the video, intervene in any way protective of the students, the citizens they’re supposedly hired to guard from harm. Quite the contrary, in fact; they enthusiastically aid and abet the attacker.
Since then, the students have subjected Chancellor Katehi — her days at the university’s helm probably numbered — to the humiliation of a stunning, silent “walk of shame,” also now circulating globally via amateur videos. Katehi has apologized and said she takes “full responsibility for the events,” describing the video of the spraying as “horrific,” and insisting that UC Davis police officers “were not supposed to use force, it was never called for.” Indeed (though she has yet to present documentation), she asserts that she gave explicit written orders prohibiting the use of pepper spray, in which case those orders were illegally violated. Pending several investigations that have begun, Spicuzza and two unnamed UC Davis police officers — one of them Pike, without question — have been placed on paid administrative leave.
But UC President Mark G. Yudof (salaried at $800,000+ per year), while claiming that he is “appalled” at the police action, has not called for the firing or resignation of the officers involved with the attack, nor of their CiC, but only for a discussion by the chancellors of all 10 UC campi about “how to ensure proportional law enforcement response to non-violent protest.” Instead, he’s appointed an “independent” committee to investigate the police riot, a trio headed by former LA Police Chief William Bratton, who believes the role of the police is to inspire “fear” in the young and disobedient. Here’s a quote from an interview with Bratton in London’s Daily Telegraph:
“To be effective, a police force should have ‘a lot of arrows in the quiver,’ said Mr Bratton, advocating a doctrine of ‘escalating force’ where weapons including rubber bullets, Tasers, pepper spray and water cannon were all available to commanders.”
Other members of the Yudof Committee include UC General Counsel Charles Robinson (who enjoys a UC compensation package of close to a half-million dollars annually, and would lead UC’s defense in the likely event that pepper-sprayed protesters decide to sue), and UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Christopher Edley Jr. (whose salary was $350,000 in 2010, without including benefits), a staunch supporter of notorious attorney John Yoo, who remains in good standing on the Berkeley law school faculty despite his service to the George W. Bush administration as the primary rationalizer of torture as a tactic. That’s an independent committee? Talk about putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse. What chickenshit.
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