Last Friday at the University of California-Davis, a group of student Occupy Wall Street protesters were pepper sprayed by university police for refusing to vacate the campus quad. As Lisa pointed out, thanks to the widespread availability of phones with cameras, the incident was photographed and recorded by dozens of onlookers. As a result, images and videos of the pepper spraying incident have flooded the internet. One video has received over 1.7 million views on Youtube; another shorter clip has almost 1 million.

One image, taken by Louise Macabitas, has become iconic (via San Francisco Citizen):

The image is striking in several ways. First, nearly everyone watching has a camera or cell phone and is documenting the event. Second, there is a strong visual separation of the police and protesters — the police are standing, while the protesters are seated. Third, the police officer who is spraying protesters has a very casual, removed demeanor and stance. There is no direct confrontation occurring to seemingly warrant such an action. The image depicts an imbalance of power, as students crouch and hide their faces from the pepper spray wielded by campus police.

The image has so much visual power that it has taken off as an online meme. Consider these variations, all posted at Wired.

I think this meme is itself a form of visual protest. The variations on the original image reinforce the perception that the police officer’s actions were inappropriate and an abuse of power. The use of famous scenes and works of art creates a cartoonish depiction of inequality and injustice, of someone using their power unjustly against those who obviously have less power — children, kittens, the unemployed, etc. (via the Pepper Spraying Cop tumblr):

Other images present the officer’s actions are an affront to justice, by using images associated with freedom, democracy, or peaceful resistance (found at the Pepper Spraying Cop tumblr and CyBeRGaTa:

This one merges the image with another iconic photo of an abuse of police power on campus, the shooting at Kent State University in 1970 (via CyBeRGaTa):

Reproducing this image of injustice online is a form of visual protest, spreading images of perceived injustice in different visual contexts across the internet. The meme is a commentary on how we culturally and historically understand power inequalities and the limits of appropriate uses of power.

Yet, while this is a powerful form of protest that draws important connections, the meme also removes the officer, Lt. John Pike, from the original context of his actions. This runs the danger of focusing on Pike as a lone actor, and not an individual whose actions are shaped within the larger institutional system of justice. As Alexis Madrigal warns us in “Why I Feel Bad for the Pepper-Spraying Policeman, Lt. John Pike“:

Structures, in the sociological sense, constrain human agency. And for that reason, I see John Pike as a casualty of the system, too. Our police forces have enshrined a paradigm of protest policing that turns local cops into paramilitary forces. Let’s not pretend that Pike is an independent bad actor. Too many incidents around the country attest to the widespread deployment of these tactics. If we vilify Pike, we let the institutions off way too easy.