The nice people at the Guardian invited me to write an op-ed about the meme-ification of Lt. John Pike's unforgettable act of brutality against UC Davis students last Friday.
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Photoshop out the students from that picture with your mind. Forget about Pike's uniform, let's say he's just wearing street clothes. Now, instead of a policeman spraying a less-lethal chemical weapon down the throats of peacefully seated 20-year-olds, you might be able to interpret this tableau as a figure sauntering through a garden, spraying weeds. Or maybe he's your paunchy, moustached uncle, nonchalantly dousing bugs in the basement with insecticide.
One way the internet deals with that kind of upsetting dissonance is to mock it. And that's what the internet has done with Pike. The "casually pepper-spraying cop" is now a meme, a kind of folk art or shared visual joke that is open to sharing and reinterpretation by anyone. This particular meme has spread with unusual velocity – in part, I imagine, because the subject matter is just as weird as it is upsetting.
Even Kamran Loghman, one of the men who developed pepper spray as a weapon with the FBI in the 1980s, had a hard time reconciling it. "I have never seen such an inappropriate and improper use of chemical agents," Loghman told the New York Times. And Loghman might add "insouciant" to that list of adjectives. I mean, look at the guy. He's not braced for imminent attack by a foe; he does not move with tension as if navigating a hostile environment.