Jeffrey Wasserstrom: When Memes Collide: Tank Man, Pepper Spray Cop





Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know," published this year by Oxford University Press. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in a wide range of academic journals, as well as in general interest periodicals such as Time and Newsweek.

Thanks to quick-thinking protesters and bystanders carrying cellphone cameras, Web surfers around the world quickly learned the story of what happened at UC Davis on November 18. The event began with students concerned about local issues (university budget cuts and tuition hikes) and a national struggle (Occupy Wall Street) staging a sit-down protest. When they refused to budge, the day’s most dramatic moments came, as campus police wielding canisters of pepper spray gassed the unarmed youths, then removed them from the area.

Still and moving images of this confrontation appeared online within minutes. One of the still photographs, which showed Lt. John Pike spraying students nonchalantly, went viral and has become the best-known icon of the OWS movement.

Its popularity as a meme has inspired widespread comparisons to other iconic images, including the so-called “Tank Man” photograph of 1989. That image, captured on film by a Western journalist using a conventional camera (he subsequently worried that Chinese security forces would confiscate the roll), was linked to a very different struggle that also involved protesters occupying and then refusing to vacate public spaces—Tiananmen Square and the central plazas of other Chinese cities.

The iconic Tank Man photo, taken on June 5, 1989, captured the standoff between a young Chinese worker and a line of armored vehicles—a standoff that was also shot by several other photographers and captured on video. The standoff occurred in central Beijing, where a massacre the day before resulted in the deaths of hundreds of students, workers and members of other social groups. That photograph is now the first thing that many people living outside of China think of when the word “Tiananmen” is said. And it is possible, as James Fallows and other commentators have suggested, that mention of “Occupy Wall Street” will in the future bring the Pepper Spraying Cop photo to mind in the same manner.

These two iconic images of protest and repression are being brought together in various other ways online. For example, as Josh Chin noted in a November 25 post for the Wall Street Journal’s “RealTime China” blog, there is a joke circulating on the Chinese Internet that has Obama being criticized for American police using pepper spray against protesters and responding by asking rhetorically whether using tanks would have been better. In the West, meanwhile, a doctored version of the Tank Man photograph, which shows Lt. Pike lending a hand to the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, has been showing up on websites....



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