Internet memes are typically the province of kittens and sad Keanus, but the latest isn't quite so lighthearted. Last week, Lt. John Pike was photographed blithely pepper-spraying passive protesters at the University of California, Davis, an incident that sparked outrage across the country. Now, the "Pepper Spray Cop," as he's been deemed, has been cut out of that notorious photo and is being photoshopped into everything from Edward Hopper paintings to Pink Floyd album covers to Star Wars stills, all collected on a Tumblr blog, of course. (See examples at right and below.) What can we learn from this viral hit?
Humor is helping Occupy reach new audiences: "This is definitely going to be one of the bigger, more important memes," of the year, Buzzfeed's Matt Stopera tells NPR. While some may say these mashups trivialize the terrible pepper-spraying incident, I would argue the opposite. These images, silly though they may be, help spread the word about what happened. For instance, a kid might well jump from a Tumblr post with an amusing image to a news article detailing the episode.
"Casually Pepper Spraying Cop meme takes off"
And it's a form of rebellion: There was nothing funny about the police brutality at UC Davis, asks Michael Graupmann at Culture Map Houston. But for some "powerless internet onlookers," making Pepper Spray Cop the butt of the joke is a way of "using humor to shift the scales of power." Now, protesters abused by the cops can give The Man a taste of his own medicine.
"UC-Davis' casual pepper spraying of student protestors inspires new meme; makes horror comedic"
It may be humorous, but it's horrifying, too: The best images are at once "totally funny and totally not funny," says Michael Shaw at BagNews. By messing with the "culturally sacred" — like Pepper Spray Cop in a picture of little John F. Kennedy, Jr. mourning his father — the meme is mirroring the way Pepper Spray Cop vandalized our very notions of liberty and what this country stands for. "We have... lost [our] innocence and the lens we were using up until last week to view our culture through suddenly isn't so clear anymore."
"Taking it to the kittens: The Pepper Spray Cop meme — and what it means"
This will be a defining point for the movement: "The image — and its subsequent meme-ification — marked the moment when the Occupy movement expanded its purview," says Megan Garber at Nieman Journalism Lab. With this single shot, Occupy became more than a fringe political movement about economic justice; it is now a universal call, loud and clear, for, "simply, justice." The photo has a clear narrative of "the powerless being exploited by the powerful." This image could prove as iconic and lasting as the shot of a single man standing up to a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square or naked children running from a napalm bomb in the Tang Bang, Vietnam.
"Image as interest: How the Pepper Spray Cop could change the trajectory of Occupy Wall Street"