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Why One Pepper-Spraying Cop Image Dominates

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When U.C. Davis police officer Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed a line of student protesters last Friday, his actions were recorded in replicate. Dozens of cameras captured video and still images, and soon swarms of photographs seeped across the internet. If there was ever a more-recorded single event in history, I am not aware of it.

Yet, from the cloud of pepper-spray photographs, one has come to dominate. It is this image, taken by Davis psychology student Louise Macabitas, from the west side of the blocked path:

Image by Louise Macabitas

This is the photo that birthed the Pepperspray Cop meme. After spending time looking at this and dozens of similar captures, I think I know why.

  • A low perspective elevates Pike’s head above the crowd, leaving an indelible impression of dominance & authority.
  • Pike is in mid-stride, adding motion to a still image, and the outward-pointed foot puts the Casual in the “casually pepper-spray everything” meme.
  • Pike’s face is visible, more so than in images taken from a higher angle.
  • The spray itself is unmistakable in silhouette.
  • Every person is identifiable as either Police, Onlooker, or Protester. The story tells itself.
  • See that police officer back-right? His stance, and his high head, reinforce a detached arrogance on the part of the police.
  • The expressions of the onlookers- at least not those in the standing paparazzi- convey a mix of surprise and disbelief.

Leaving politics and sociology aside, the image compels on its own merits. It is at once both complex and simple. There is a lot to look at, but each element adds into the same narrative. As Megan Garber notes:

…the photo’s narrative is built into its imagery. It depicts not just a scene, but a story. It requires of viewers very little background knowledge; even more significantly, it requires of them very few political convictions.

A remarkable image. I hope that eventually Ms. Macabitas receives due recognition for it.

***This image is reproduced here under the Fair Use provision of U.S. copyright law, as this post is editorial commentary on the photograph itself.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. MikeTheHammer 4:48 pm 11/22/2011

    My favorite captions:

    Dont mind me, I’m just watering my hippies.

    Well, thats ONE WAY to get them to bathe.

    Link to this
  2. 2. dregstudios 8:18 pm 11/23/2011

    When will we start holding officers accountable for their brutality and excessive use of force? Evicting protesters is Unconstitutional and endangers the basic rights of EVERY last American. Is this the country we were raised in, were men and women are beaten, gassed, pepper-sprayed and arrested for their disapproval of the government? We have to be careful to protect our Constitutional Rights! Raise awareness and do your part with these free posters I designed for the movement on my artist’s blog at

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  3. 3. dtcdtc 6:51 pm 11/24/2011

    >If there was ever a more-recorded single event in history, I am not aware of it.

    I’m not sure what you consider to be a “single event”, but in my mind the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 would likely trump this event.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Laird Wilcox 6:04 am 11/26/2011

    The whole idea of pepper spray when it was introduced was as a “less than lethal” alternative to shooting or violence. It was intended to disable or distract violent people so they could be subdued and that’s how it was marketed to police agencies and promoted in the media. The idea was to replace beating and shooting with something less harmful. Most liberals and civil-liberties minded people liked the idea as a way of keeping people from being hurt or killed. I was a Special Deputy Sheriff in a major metropolitan area for three years in the 1970s and like all officers I was issued pepper spray and was trained how to use it, and it was not as depicted here.

    Since then pepper spray has morphed into an instrument of punishment used by police departments. It’s used to shut people up, to threaten them, to physically punish them for minor infractions such as talking back, arguing or passive resistance as was the case in this photograph. What’s tragic is that most American citizens support exactly what’s depicted here.

    America has gone on a law and order rage that has horrible effects on civil liberties and basic human rights, and really has little to do with suppressing crime. It’s an emotional revenge-oriented tantrum that shares certain characteristics with violent criminal behavior itself. There are cases where pepper spray has a bona fide use, such as breaking up a knife fight or subduing violent criminals, but not for this purpose. Conservatives may chuckle at people they don’t like getting mistreated, but eventually it will be their turn. Protecting civil liberties is in everybody’s interest, right, left or whatever. Police abuse is never right, no matter how much we might dislike the victim.

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  5. 5. HBG_Dave 9:01 pm 11/26/2011

    Assuming your points are given in order of importance, then I do not agree with your analysis. I think the three critical points are first (1) the stream of pepper spray is so clearly visible (your point 4); (2) Lt Pike appears almost a caricature (he is strutting and his face is hardly visible – which add to the stereotype); and (3) the protestors are in submissive poses, so the assault appears unprovoked.

    The rest of the picture is fuzzy and uninteresting. Although, the jackal-like paparazi did make me feel some disgust(why weren’t they trying to stop Lt Pike?) and I wondered why someone in Davis needed expensive LLBean boots (with turned-up cuffs so no one would miss them).

    In almost all of the pictures that I have seen, the pepper spray is at or near the centre of the picture. If the stream of pepper spray were not visible, then neither this nor any of the other pictures would have had any significant emotional impact. All that would have been seen was a policeman strutting in front of some huddling kids.

    Suppose Lt Pike looked like a Hollywood cop and his face, as is usual in movies, were fully visible? Would some of the emotion have swung his way?

    Your hypothesis that “A low perspective elevates Pike’s head above the crowd” seems questionable. Isn’t that a sleeve and a hand on the right foreground? The picture seems to have been aimed at about the height of Lt Pike’s sternum. If it were taken at a truly low perspective, wouldn’t the protestors have looked larger?

    I’ve been pepper sprayed (and beaten) by uniformed minions of the law, so I should be predisposed to feel outrage. However, I had read reports that the protestors had been warned they would be pepper sprayed unless they dispersed before I saw the pictures. With that context, the primary outrage I felt was at the stupidity of the authorities.

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  6. 6. BrainWorld 11:29 am 12/22/2011

    This is what Fascism looks like.

    America is lost and deserves to go belly-up completely at this point. There is no recovering from this level of moral and legal corruption. We need a do-over.

    Link to this

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