The Moral Power of an Image: UC Davis Reactions

Apart from the updates that a variety of readers sent yesterday about the affectless sadism of a UC Davis policemen, let me mention a few more links and resources:

1. Notice the crowd. This is a point I wish I had made the first time around. While the first 60 seconds of the 8-minute YouTube video are dominated by the shockingly calm brutality of the policeman, the rest of it is remarkable mainly for the stoicism and resolve of the protestors. You don't have to idealize everything about them or the Occupy movement to recognize this as a moral drama that the protestors clearly won. The self-control they show, while being assaulted, reminds me of grainy TV footage I saw as a kid, of black civil rights protestors being fire-hosed by Bull Connor's policemen in Alabama. Or of course the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. Such images can have tremendous, lasting power. (Classic AP photo from the early 60s below, followed by Brian Nguyen photo from Davis.)

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What is going on is a war of ideas, based in turn on moral standing. This engagement, which started in Minute 1 with police over-reaction and ended in Minute 8 with nervous police retreat, was a rout.*

2. What this shows about our police, and us. Three of my Atlantic colleagues have analyses very much worth reading. Alexis Madrigal, on why this is less about the individual policeman who held the spray can than about an overall change in police strategy; Garance Franke-Ruta on whether this latest episode might have a last-straw effect in forcing recognition of how needlessly violent and brutal police response has been across the country; and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the potential of this episode to direct attention to long-standing patterns of abuse. As he says, "Not to diminish what happened at UC Davis, but it's worth considering what happens in poor  neighborhoods and prisons, far from the cameras. I'm not saying that to diminish this video in anyway. But I'd like people to see this a part of a broad systemic attitude we've adopted as a country toward law enforcement."

3. Shooting vs spraying. Reader MS sends in a link to a different UC Davis video.
I'd like to direct to you to this far less publicized video that starts a couple of minutes earlier in the incident, where Officer Pike [who did the spraying] seems to have threatened the students that he and his men would shoot them:

At that point in the video, they are clearly brandishing their non-lethal guns.

Again, more questions...

-  I'm sure he would now try to say he meant 'shoot them with pepper spray', but notice his officers' posture and that Pike immediately rejoins their ranks.  It's only later, after the crowd yelling "don't shoot students" and some seeming deliberation that the pepper spray is fetched.  Plus, why use the verb "shoot", when "spray" would be more appropriate?

-  How non-lethal is it to shoot those guns from a standing position down towards the heads of protesters at close range?

-  Does it not at least violate policy to shoot even non-lethal guns at perps that have their back turned to you, aren't menacing anyone, and aren't fleeing?

-  It's clear to a viewer of the video that Pike meant that his officers would shoot protesters with non-lethal weapons, not their lethal firearms.  However, considering the seated protesters had their backs to the officers, did/could they know that?
4. Cameras. As many people have written in to point out, the sign of a modern protest movement is the omnipresence of cameras. Some police officials, some protestors, and nearly all onlookers are recording whatever goes on. We can't imagine all the effects of the panopticon society, but one benefit is certainly the one T-N Coates points out: some greater accountability and reality-test for police claims that they "had" to use excessive force. Andrew Sprung has just written on this aspect.

5. Police dressed as storm troopers. My previous post included a question. A reader quotes it and offers an answer:
"And by the way, when did we accept the idea that local police forces would always dress up in riot gear that used to be associated with storm troopers and dystopian sci-fi movies?"

About the early-1990s, with Daryl Gates' LAPD.  Gates always saw the police as paramilitary -- I remember the LA Times pointing out during that time LAPD had more helicopters than Libya.

But it was Gates' "SWAT-ification" of the force that was the turning point -- one whose need appeared justified to the (middle-class) public by the Rodney King riots (which were mostly by Latinos by arrests and fatalities, but leave that aside).

* Update #1: The disciplined, contemptuous dead silence of the protestors through whom UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi walks en route to her car is another astonishingly powerful demonstration of moral imagery. Again, as a moral confrontation, this is a rout.



Update #2: Thanks to many, many readers who have sent links the 9th Circuit ruling laying out the rules for acceptable use of pepper spray, in response to the outrageous 1999 Humboldt County case. By the standards laid out in the ruling, the UC Davis use was obviously unjustified. More on the ruling here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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