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Lt. John Pike Goes Viral (3)

When members of the Los Angeles Police Department brutalized Rodney King on March 3, 1991, they did so at night, in a dark stretch of Foothill Boulevard with no pedestrians about. They had no way of knowing that a bystander, George Holliday, drawn by the noise, was videotaping much of the incident from the balcony of his apartment a short distance away. Certainly they could not have anticipated that this amateur documentation would make its way to the mass media and go as viral as “citizen journalism” could go in the pre-World Wide Web era. Nor could they have predicted the massive consequences to themselves, to the LA Police department, and to the city of Los Angeles itself.

2011 isn’t 1991, and much has changed in the intervening two decades. By contrast, as I noted in my first post about this event, Lt. John Pike of the UC Davis Police Department had to have known that he and his comrades in arms had multiple cameras trained on them in broad daylight during their hardass pepper-spray-and-baton smackdown of the peaceful protesters on the UC Davis quad on November 18. Every video I’ve viewed of this lamentable police attack on students shows dozens of cameras visibly pointed at the scene.

Lt. John Pike waves pepper-spray can, 11-18_11

Lt. John Pike waves pepper-spray can, 11-18-11

Consider, too, the ages of the police personnel involved. Pike, at 39, is a senior figure among them — meaning that all these men and women grew up with the web, computers, digital cameras, cellphones. They’re not old fogies who don’t grasp the workings of the internet or don’t understand how digital-imaging tools work. They use them every day, on the job and in their private lives. They’ve also had countless situations to study, from the photographs of the Civil Rights movement through the videotaped beating of King on to Abu Ghraib and Arab Spring, as high-profile examples of how rapidly and widely images of uniformed authority figures behaving abusively can spread, and the damage such images can do to those figures and the institutions that hire them to do their strongarm work.

There’s no ambiguity in these images from UC Davis. This is a purposeful individual in uniform, demonstrating what happens to anyone who refuses to obey his commands and challenges the powerful institution he represents. You’re watching a man knowingly craft a public image of himself in his official role. And those are his fellow officers, in full riot gear (body armor, helmets with facemasks, Tasers, batons, teargas grenade guns, zip ties), staunchly backing up his every move in their supporting roles in this drama as they face a crowd of unarmed college students. They all understand exactly what they’re doing; their sense of entitlement to act as they do is palpable.

Lt. John Pike with Socrates. Anonymous photocollage.

Lt. John Pike with Socrates. Anonymous photocollage.

In short, there’s no plausible deniability here; Pike and his accomplices can’t plead either innocence or ignorance. Indeed, they’ve invited this scrutiny, the speed of which can’t have surprised them either. No reason, then, to feel any sympathy for any of them if society weighs them in the balance and finds them wanting — nor if juries find them civilly or criminally liable. When Pike waves his can at the observers before starting to spray, he’s telling them to bring it on.

If you want to read some truly repellent claptrap — of the variety, and pungency, that puts the words “bleeding-heart liberal” in bad odor — spend a few minutes with “Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike,” by Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic. Madrigal writes, “A regular guy named John Pike has become the new face of evil among people following the Occupy protests around the country. . . . I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. . . . And while it’s his finger pulling the trigger, the police system is what put him in the position to be standing in front of those students. I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn’t become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it. And while the kids may cough up blood and writhe in pain, what happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”

Pres. Ronald Reagan lays a wreath at Bitburg memorial for SS troops, 1985.

Pres. Ronald Reagan lays a wreath at Bitburg memorial for Nazi SS troops, 1985.

This constitutes an updated version of Ronald Reagan’s rationale for his presidential visit to the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery near Bitburg, Germany in 1985. He laid a wreath at the memorial for the men buried there, who were part of Hitler’s Waffen-SS, of whom Reagan said: “These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. I think that there’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”

Still from video of Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying peaceful protesters at UC Davis, 11/18/11

Still from video of Lt. John Pike pepper-spraying peaceful protesters at UC Davis, 11/18/11

Spare me both these facile attempts to make victims out of persecutors. I’m not equating Pike and the troopers under him with the SS, mind you, nor the Occupy protesters at UC Davis with the European Jews. But let’s not pretend that armed police dressed like storm troopers attacking unarmed and unresisting citizens don’t bear comparison with their fascist counterparts, past and present, here and in other countries — or that they have the same claims on our sympathies as those they oppress.

Apologists for sadism, like Madrigal, like Reagan, propose that systemic ideological corruption trumps individual choice and excuses amoral behavior in general, including obeying inhumane commands from superiors. Stuff and nonsense. The Nuremberg trials of 1945-49 put that lie to rest; the subsequent and ongoing trials at the International Criminal Court in The Hague represent the moral and legal consensus that we cannot hide from responsibility for our actions behind the rationale of following orders that come from “the system,” as Madrigal would have it. Pike and his ilk profit, financially and otherwise, from wielding power in the ways that they do; they choose their paths because they benefit from doing so, and because they enjoy exercising their power. You can bet that, in the brief period post-sprayfest before the shit hit the fan at UC Davis, there wasn’t a session of soul-searching and prayer for forgiveness in the wardroom, but high-fives all around and shouts of praise for Pike’s spraymeister panache.

Lt. John Pike in Alexander Gardner's "A Harvest of Death," 1863. Anonymous photocollage.

Lt. John Pike in Alexander Gardner's "A Harvest of Death," 1863. Anonymous photocollage.

Madrigal can’t know — none of us can — the long-term impact of that experience on Pike’s victims: not just the medical effects but the psychological and spiritual ones. Madrigal’s proposal that the moral and/or spiritual consequences to Pike will outweigh all of that suffering by several dozen people I find disgusting. True, many bad things are about to happen to Pike; already suspended (albeit with full pay), he’ll almost certainly get fired, lose his pension, get sued, and perhaps get arrested, possibly convicted, conceivably jailed. Most of that was predictable, based on the law of the land and his chosen course of action. I would applaud any and all of those outcomes for him. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

What plump, stately John Pike can’t have imagined, of course, was how, lightning-quick, he’d get transmogrified into a mocking meme, pepper-spraying everyone from Gandhi to the baby Jesus. Save perhaps for comedians and the paranoid, few among us visualize ourselves achieving the status of internationally recognizable buffoons within a few hours of some public action. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Pike. The videos of the attack hit the internet just minutes after it happened, going viral within hours. The photocollages started coming shortly thereafter — and while the videos, though plentiful, are necessarily limited in number, the collages breed as quickly as people can think of other images to use in spreading this meme. I’ve seen estimates ranging as high as 1000 Pike images as of this writing. (Eventually a book’s worth will get gathered and published, mark my words. Pike can browse it with his grandkids.) Indeed, NYC-based film director Ryan Gielen has now created a blog called PikesCorner, in which a simulacrum of the brave lieutenant dispenses advice on a diversity of subjects. And Jon Stewart’s had his say on this as well.

Lt. John Pike moonwalking. Anonymous photocollage.

Lt. John Pike moonwalking. Anonymous photocollage.

I consider the derision to which this photocollage meme holds Pike up to be well-deserved, and I encourage its continuance. Surely someone’s already working on an app that will make possible what Squirrelizer enabled for another viral portrait subject several years back. (You’ll find a version of Squirrelizer here, called “Crasher Squirrel.”) This app — let’s call it Pikeizer — will effect the simple online insertion of this bold cavalier’s likeness into any image. In anticipation of that, here they both are, John Pike and Anonymous the Squirrel, together again for the first time, in my own contribution to the genre. Particularly apt since the just-mentioned PikesCorner advice column has Pike recommending “Try pepper spraying the squirrel until his eyes bleed” as a solution to the problem of a squirrel stealing birdfeed. Give Pike a dose of his own medicine, I say. (For the DIY types among you, click here for a Photoshop template of Pike in action.)

Lt. John Pike with squirrel. Photo illustration by A. D. Coleman.

Lt. John Pike with squirrel. Photo illustration by A. D. Coleman.

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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