The Visual Life of Occupy Wall Street

Pepper Spray Cop placed into "Christina's World", a 1948 painting by American painter Andrew Wyeth.

Pepper Spray Cop placed into “Christina’s World”, a 1948 painting by American painter Andrew Wyeth.

Many visual tropes have accompanied Occupy Wall Street’s rise to public prominence. In the beginning, there was the ethereal image of a ballerina poised delicately on the back of the Wall Street bull which graced the original posters and calls-for-action. There were photos of Zuccotti Park crammed with tents and blue tarps. The iconic “I am the 99%” stance, a photo of a single person, holding a handwritten sign dense with text, became a form in and of itself, attracting spinoffs, parodies, and rebuttals.

Two images, in particular, have become highly associated with the Occupy movement in the public eye: the image of Officer Pike pepper spraying students at UC Davis, popularized by the Pepper-Spray Cop remix meme; and the Guy Fawkes mask, first popularized by Anonymous. Each of these images speaks to different aspects of the Occupy movement, its origins, and its challenges, as well as hinting to where the movement will go in the future.

The Pepper-Spray Cop

The original, actual "Pepper Spray Cop"

The original, actual “Pepper Spray Cop”

The Pepper-Spray Cop meme has its origins in the Occupy UC Davis protests held on November 18 of last year. A group of students had gathered on the campus quad in an attempt to start an Occupy encampment. Some were arrested by UC Davis campus police, which prompted others to link arms and sit on the ground in a human chain, refusing police requests to move. In response, UC Davis Police officer John Pike and another unidentified officer, in a manner that struck many as extremely calm and callous, walked back and forth before the seated line of students, deploying their pepper spray at extremely close range. The incident was captured on video and posted to YouTube by user terrydatiger that same day. As of this writing, the original video has been viewed over 2.4 million times.

The photo that would become the core of the Pepper Spray Cop meme was taken by Louise Macabitas, a psychology student at UC Davis. Originally shared on Facebook, the photo found its way to Reddit on November 19. Struck by the nonchalance displayed by Officer Pike in the photo, redditors quickly began remixing the photo with classic works of art, iconic photographs, and other internet memes.

By November 21, the meme had been featured on BoingBoing, Gawker, Buzzfeed, ABC News, and in the Washington Post. Officer Pike was eventually inserted into works ranging from Christine’s World and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte to clips from Star Wars and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Four single subject Tumblrs were created devoted to the meme, two of which are still active as of this writing. It even garnered an episode of the Downfall parody meme, wherein Hitler complains about Pepper-Spray Cop’s quick rise in popularity. The meme has become one of the most widely distributed visual markers of the Occupy movement.

Pepper Spray Cop in the classic Maxell "Blown Away" ad/poster.

Pepper Spray Cop in the classic Maxell “Blown Away” ad/poster.

In addition to the particular visual appeal of the original photograph, the Pepper- Spray Cop meme tapped into a well of anger and discomfort that had arisen over other pepper spray incidents at other Occupy camps. An incident in late September in New York City, where Officer Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed two women in the face received a large amount of attention after videos of the incident appeared on YouTube and The Daily Show. Another highly publicized incident was the pepper spraying of Dorli Rainey, an 84-year-old woman, which occurred November 15 in Seattle, just a few days before the UC Davis incident.

When watching the original video, one is struck by how many cameras are present, taking video, take photographs. This is not a new phenomenon in the Occupy movement, or in general. We are used to seeing a super-profusion of glowing screens, recording everything around us for posterity. In this case, however, the masses witnessing the incident were matched, and even overwhelmed, by the masses visually and creatively reacting to the incident. Rather than passively passing along the received information, the audience in this case creatively amplified and augmented the message.

The Guy Fawkes Mask

Anonymous/Guy Fawkes masks, photo by VincentDiamante

Anonymous/Guy Fawkes masks, photo by VincentDiamante

Another major visual symbol of the Occupy movement is the Guy Fawkes mask. This mask, a mass produced piece of merchandising from the Time Warner film V for Vendetta, has appeared in images of protests world wide, from Occupy marches to the Arab Spring.

The mask’s symbolic life has been a complex one. Guy Fawkes is best know as one of the perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, an attempt by English Catholics to assassinate King James and blow up the House of Lords. November 5 has historically been known as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night, and is celebrated with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy. The Guy Fawkes mask has its roots in these celebrations. The mask and, to some extent, the historical figure of Guy Fawkes himself received a bit of rehabilitation in the comic book series V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, published from 1982 to 1989. The comic depicts a near-future dystopic Britain, under the rule of a fascist dictatorship. The main character, an anarchic revolutionary known only as V, wears a stylized Guy Fawkes mask, and convinces another character, Evey, to join with him in an elaborate and violent plot to bring down the government and return political autonomy to the people.

A film adaptation of the comic book was released in March of 2006, directed by James McTeigue and starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. Alan Moore refused to endorse the adaptation, and distanced himself from it, saying the project dampened the anarchist leanings of the original work and ignored its anti-Thatcherite message. The film was a financial and critical success, bringing in over $130 million in its box office run. As part of the commercial merchandising of the film, Halloween costumes replicas of Hugo Weaving’s V costume and mask were sold starting in September 2006, with the mask available separately for $6.99.

The mask began its migration into modern popular political culture on 4chan, the online image board that gave rise to the group Anonymous. A character known as Epic Fail Guy, a stick figure who failed at everything, became popular on the image board in 2006. Threads would be posted, with contributions from multiple people, showing Epic Fail Guy trying to achieve some action or status and failing again and again. In late September 2006, one such thread appeared wherein Epic Fail Guy discovered what appeared to be a V for Vendetta-type Guy Fawkes in a garbage can. Subsequently, Epic Fail Guy was often depicted wearing the mask.

The mask crossed over into the real world with the advent of Operation Chanology, an anti-Scientology protest raid organized by Anonymous and a notable moment in the politicization of Anonymous. Protesters appeared outside Churches of Scientology worldwide to protest what they saw as the Church’s censorious and abusive practices. Given the mask’s association with Epic Fail Guy, it would appear that the use of the mask in these protests was not to reference the political values espoused in either the movie or the comic books, but rather to call out what Anons saw as the EPIC FAILness of Scientology. The mask was also worn to conceal the identity of the protesters. Scientology is well known for its vindictive reprisals against those who challenge the church publicly.

As time went on and Anonymous’s political identity has developed, the symbolism of the mask has shifted away from Epic Fail Man. The population involved in Anonymous actions has expanded beyond those involved with 4chan and the notorious message board /b/ to encompass activists and those involved with more mainstream internet culture.

Currently, the Guy Fawkes mask, with its slight smile and curved mustache, is as recognizable as Anonymous’s other iconic signature, a headless black suit with its arms folded behind it. Both symbols project power. Both directly reference the leaderless nature of Anonymous, in the suit’s headless nature and Guy Fawkes’s status as an anarchic folk hero. The suit itself calls to mind pop culture figures like Agent Smith in The Matrix and the powerful secret agents in Men in Black, figures which represent an unknown, seething power structure operating outside the realm of normal comprehension. The symbolism of the mask itself, adopted by anti authoritarian protesters from OWS to the Arab Spring, seems to have reverted to more closely embody the meaning in the V for Vendetta comics and film.

Rather than overtly mocking those targeted by the protesters, the mask serves as a political identifier. The wearer is identified as anti-authoritarian, a member of an online generation that values the freedom of communication and assembly that the internet has so powerfully enabled.

The mask, in its extreme popularity, also emphasized the communitarian aspects of both online communities and the protest environment itself. A core value of Anonymous, one that grew out of the default architecture of the 4chan image board, is the anonymity, and thus the radical equality, of its participants. When widely worn by members of the Occupy movement, the mask further underlines that movement’s message of equality and communitarianism.

The mask also emphasizes the need for anonymity in our political system, both rhetorically and actually. As with the original protests in Operation Chanology, many participants in the Occupy movement felt that open participation could put them in danger of losing their job or suffering other social and economic consequences.

Just as the ubiquitous presence of cheap cameras in the hands of civilians empowers them against the casual brutality of the police, the mask empowers the public against the panopticon, the cameras of the state, or the cameras co-opted by the state. In an age in which we are dogged by social media, it is vital that there be moments when we can choose to have an anonymous voice. Anonymity and secrecy are precious in the voting booth. Masked protest takes the stand that, in other aspects of our political life, anonymity should be just as valuable.

Both the Pepper Spray Cop meme and the Guy Fawkes mask take overt anti-authoritarian stands, and confront the camera culture we currently live in. Both highlight the power of the internet in shaping the activism that occurs on the streets and our societal reactions to it. As visual symbols of the Occupy movement, they emphasize the movement’s core values and its openness to new influences.

Molly Sauter

About Molly Sauter

Molly Sauter is a Vanier Scholar and PhD candidate in Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal, QC, researching the politics of disruption in networked communication technology. They are the author of The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. They hold a masters degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, and have held research fellowships at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, and New America. Their work has been published in The Atlantic, the Journal of Communication, the Case Western Reserve Law Review, Real Life Mag, Ethnography Matters, HiLow Brow, io9, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Times, the American Behavioral Scientist, and the MIT Technology Review, and in collected volumes published by MIT Press and Peter Lang. They have frequently appeared as an expert on technology, culture, and politics on the CBC, NPR, the BBC, PRI, American Public Media, the Boston Globe, and other international outlets. Their research has been featured by Popular Mechanics, BoingBoing, Slate, Der Spiegel, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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