In the Fall of 2011, Americans everywhere engaged in the Occupy Movement. They held post on university campuses and streets demanding a change in society to decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. They tried to spread awareness about the inequality within our economy and the unjust treatment by the government. Socially engaged universities held much of this protest. At UC Berkeley, we saw an uprising of students demanding justice as they camped out on campus against police requests. We also saw this same motion at other universities, including UC Davis. However, despite the police brutality and student resistance abound, UC Davis solidified a name for themselves as a centerpiece of the Occupy Movement’s absurdity…or rather, what we have now come to accept as internet humor. The “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop” depicts an image of a police officer nonchalantly pepper spraying a row of UC Davis students resisting their orders. The students are not aggressive, there is no combat, and the only movement we see really, is that of the cop’s sauntering, casually attempting to dominate the human chain.
This image proceeded to grow out of its original context and define any moment in which an absurdly offhanded pepper spray offense takes place, or seems humorously appropriate. Hundreds of photo-shopped images were shared online, most of which placed the infamous antagonist into various milestones of American history. For instance, Lt. John Pike, the infamous cop here, is photo-shopped onto the 1819 Declaration of Independence painting by John Trumbull. In images like these, Lt. Pike is to stand as symbol of degradation, carelessly trying to destruct that which makes our nation strong. At first it was the social power of our universities’ youth and now it is anything which stands as a perfectly reasonable and respected force of a parade, rained on by the unrelenting and brash police.
This meme is not only popular due to the sheer absurdity it exalts, but also because of its greater message of injustice and how frankly absurd the government can be. The image proliferated at a time when the buzz surrounding its context was thriving and there were hordes of college students ( the majority of the internet population) involved in the story, communicating about it, sharing it. When the digital word of humor coincides with the real world at a time when social context strives to augment the message/humor of memes, we see the greatest connection and growth. The meme served as a backlash for the cop involved, as well as for the whole situation in general. This simply goes to show that when the absurdity is illuminated as a trending meme online, the meaning of the image changes. It is taken out of context and elevated as something greater, as a symbol of the lack of social justice in America and a means by which college students and comparable cohorts can all relate to each other.
The meme’s popularity died down as the Occupy movement and backlash died down (note the Google Insight analytics above), however not without first becoming a part of a greater sensation. Soon news reports that sought to delicately exonerate the obviously-out-of-place cop became captioned images of this same sense of nonchalentness in regarding the greater issue at hand. Additionally, pepper spray as a product came to be known as a meme in itself. On November 21st 2011, Amazon reviewers began commenting spoof reviews for the specific brand of pepper spray canister used in the incident. They would post humorous comments such as, Whenever I need to breezily inflict discipline on unruly citizens, I know I can trust Defense Technology 56895 MK-9 Stream, 1.3% Red Band/1.3% Blue Band Pepper Spray to get the job done! The power of reason is no match for Defense Technology’s superior repression power.” Again, all of these meme extensions serve to stand as examples of internet attacks against irrational mentalities. We find I funny and share it as humorous material, because it is relatable and relevant. Surely, I have seen plenty of my friends share the adapted, “Don’t mind me, just watering my hippies!” version as a means to note both their sympathy and their responsibility- to be involved in something so relevant, to spread word of it and understand it.