Cop Art: The Rise of the Citizen Satirist

“My name only comes up when some a-hole wants to end an argument…, ” Adolf Hitler yells to his generals in the climax of a 2004 film “Der Untergang.” depicting the final ten days of the Third Reich. “Now you tell me some campus cop is 'The New Face of Evil?'”

Indeed, Hitler is right for once – at least, the Hitler created by filmmaker Sarah Harbin, who dubbed the brilliant YouTube satire “Hitler Reacts to Pepper Spray Mime,” posted November 22. Four days earlier, on November 18, University of California, Davis campus cop Lt. John Pike, who casually pepper-sprayed students at an Occupy protest in the quad of my alma mater, has become the “New Face of Evil,” his blasé use of excessive force a social media phenomenon on par with Charlie Sheen's “Winning” rants.(1)

Pike – “Casually Pepper-Spray Everything Cop” – has become an icon, a cartoon, digitally cut from the UC Davis protest and pasted into history. He has been Photoshopped into pretty much every famous image available on Google; he's pepper-spraying baby seals, Steven Hawking, the “Wizard of Oz's” Cowardly Lion, the Declaration of Independence, MC Escher, and doing so with his trademark cool detachment. He has a Twitter account with over 1,000 followers, where he brags: “My kid can pepper spray your honor student. ” He also reviews pepper spray on Amazon: “Whenever I need to breezily inflict discipline on unruly citizens, I know I can trust Defense Technology 56895 MK-9 Stream, 1. 3 percent Red Band/1. 3 percent Blue Band Pepper Spray to get the job done!” And, of course, he has a T-Shirt available at CafePress, just for toddlers: “Eco-conscious parents love this Pepper Spray Cop Butterflies toddler t-shirt that is super soft on young skin, yet durable enough for the most rugged play time.” (Like getting pepper-sprayed?) Want to know more? You can find links to all this information on “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop” on his Wikipedia entry (or his more complete and insightful entry, where I did my research, at Know Your Memes).

But you probably know all of this. As of writing this today – one week after Pike sprayed his way into history – I'm already very, very late to the Pepper Spray Cop game (In fact, I'm already showing my age, as he already has an acronym: PSC). There have already been a number of astute analyses on PSC, most notably Megan Garber's November 21 essay from Harvard's Neiman Journalism Lab, “Image as Interest: How Pepper Spray Cop could change the trajectory of Occupy Wall Street.” She dissects PSC with insight and intellectual vigor usually reserved for the famous paintings into which PSC is now carefully Photoshopped. Garber observes that the image takes on “almost allegoric dimensions,” imbuing it with the universal resonance of “the powerless being exploited by the powerful,” which renders the “particularities (geographical location, political context) all but irrelevant.”

Pike is not a cop; he's not at UC Davis, and the students are not students. Rather, to Garber, the iconic image of Pike coolly spraying the students is transcendent, rising above any of the particularities of the real event, and reaching toward the timeless struggle for equality, “a kind of … Platonic concern … [becoming] something more than a political movement.” In other words, the image of PSC walking down the Beatles' Abbey Road, spraying Paul in the face, is more than a joke – no, our laughter helps us reach toward the best of human nature, toward Plato's “Republic.”

Call it Sgt. Pepper's Republic.

And, no doubt, the PSC craze may seem about as bizarre as the Beatles' “Sgt. Pepper” album (on which someone has pasted Pike, as well). But Pike's actions were bizarre, and thus, this satiric “Photoshop Justice” (as BoingBoing writer Xeni Jardin dubs it) seems to better capture the moment, and the moral outrage the viewer feels, than the photo itself. Great satire does just this: it turns reality on its head, making us laugh while, at the same time, revealing some sort of ugly truth that we can't confront without laughing. Consider Jonathan Swift's “Modest Proposal” for helping the poor in Ireland, by serving their infants “stewed, roasted, baked or boiled, ” in a “wholesome … fricassee or ragout. ” While few remember the particulars of what Swift was satirizing in 1729, his bizarre and beautiful “Modest Proposal” reveals a sort of universal moral outrage on the treatment of the poor – which still, to this day, in its utterly true strangeness, makes us laugh, and makes us mad, all at the same time.

Yet, though riotously funny, @PepperSprayingCop is not ghostwritten by Swift. It's not even written by a single author, nor by a team of comedians at The Onion – rather, this satire has been crowd sourced, composed in the cloud by thousands of anonymous citizen satirists, who use Photoshop to make a mockery out of the photos and videos taken by citizen journalists. Formerly, popular satire was only the terrain of the professionals, like Swift or Jon Stewart, who had earned and scrapped their way to satirical stardom, making it into our textbooks and TVs; now, anyone with Photoshop can cut and paste their way to our attention, and make us cry with laughter and rage.

“Pepper Spray Cop” is satire by mob.

For San Francisco State University English lecturer and Philip K. Dick scholar David Gill, writing in a Facebook post, the PSC phenomenon is “heartwarming and brilliant.” The ceaseless satires of Pike, these “new juxtapositions of cruelty with iconic images of Americana allow us to replay our outrage over and over again, all the while rewarding us with humor. “In other words, Gill astutely points out that these satires – repeated over and again in new forms – make us laugh, but also allow us to experience the outrage over Pike's actions, over and again, keeping our anger actively burning beneath our chuckles.”(2)

I think Gill is right – our citizen satirists, who have made Pike pepper spray the innocent across history, who have made him the “New Face of Evil, ” who have turned him into a transcendent allegory of oppression, have captured the spirit of injustice, keeping our outrage aflame longer and brighter than it might with the images by themselves.

But I also think that, by pulling Pike from his original context, by yanking him from the UCD protest, and turning him into a cartoon character – “Casually Pepper Spraying Everything Cop” – we also stripped him, and the protesters, of their humanity. Pike, nor the protesters, are allegory, but are real people, engaged in a real struggle, in a real place – and once Pike is everywhere, he is nowhere. By repeating his image over and again, it is transmogrified from the horrific, to the humorous, and ultimately, the meaningless, not unlike Andy Warhol's Pop Art images,(3) yet instead of Marilyn Monroe repeated again and again, it's Lieutenant Pike's fire-red mustache.

Call it “Cop Art. “

The ultimate irony – or perhaps, “Photoshop Justice” – is that the citizen satirists dehumanize Pike as he dehumanized the protesters. In doing so, the citizen satirists have pulled the injustice of Pike's actions from the original, real-life context, and abstracted it so distantly from the “particularities” of history that the image is bled of the moment, becoming nothing more than a static icon, a symbol of injustice, to be turned into a logo for a toddler T-shirt, not unlike Che Guevara or Nike, ready for manufacture in a factory somewhere far away. (But to stave off his pain, as one of my friends put it, Pike could make a mint if he were savvy enough to trademark his image now.)

Perhaps, I just don't get the joke – as I told you, I'm late to the “Pepper Spray Cop” game. After all, as one of Hitler's generals famously advised him: “Mein Führer, some people don't understand satire. “

1. For a thorough discussion of memes and propaganda, see: Mickey Huff, Frances Capell, Adam Bessie. 2010. Junk food news and news abuse on a feed to know basis. Pp 159-91 in (Huff and Phillips, eds) Censored 2011, New York: Seven Stories Press.

2. Gill brilliantly observes that the PCS meme is “incentivized activist behavior within the gift economy,” a concept well worth its own essay.

3. Thanks to my colleague, Diablo Valley College English professor Antonia Fannin, for this excellent observation.