Every significant political or social movement has its “moment,” that instance which sears the movement into the consciousness and helps define it for future generations.
For the Occupy movement, that moment may well have come a week ago, when riot police casually pepper-sprayed seated, non-violent protesters at the University of California at Davis. Video of the event went viral, sparking outrage at the callousness of the officers’ action and inciting questions about the use of pepper spray.
The event was not as horrific as the 1970 Kent State shootings, when Ohio National Guard members killed four unarmed students and wounded nine others who were protesting the United States’ invasion of Cambodia.
It was not as poignant as the images of a lone Chinese protester standing in front of a column of tanks during the 1989 Tianamen Square uprising.
It was not as incendiary as the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, which sparked revolutions that thus far have led to the overthrow of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The pepper-spraying incident at Cal-Davis was not as significant or memorable or important as those events, yet for now it symbolically stands as the Occupy movement’s “moment.”
Part of the reason for that reflects the profound changes that have been brought about by the advent and pervasiveness of social media. Because of Facebook and Twitter and other outlets that have made the world smaller than ever before, seemingly no event can take place in a vacuum these days. Any incident, regardless of how isolated it might be, can be shared around the world in a matter of moments.
This was never more important than in the actions of Bouazizi, the Tunisian street merchant. Fed up with police harassment, he set himself aflame in the middle of a busy street, inadvertently sparking what has become known as the Arab Spring. If the incident had not been captured by cellphone cameras and shared throughout the Arab world, Bouazizi would have died an easily forgotten death. Instead, he changed the world.
The pepper-spraying incident at Davis is not as visceral. The reach of its impact will not be as long, its grip not as strong. Yet it was important.
The actions of the police clearly were outrageous. Unlike in previous generations, when the perpetrators could claim that the protesters somehow incited the incident, anybody who cares to can watch the video and judge for themselves.
This is much different from a pepper-spraying incident during protests last week in Portland, which produced a photo of a woman being sprayed in the mouth at close range. That incident involved a much more volatile situation that was close to getting out of hand, close to becoming dangerous for police and bystanders.
We don’t know whether the deployment of pepper spray was warranted in the Portland case, but it was understandable. Police must make instantaneous decisions in stressful situations about the best way to preserve the peace and protect the public. Sometimes, there is a fine line between a crowd and a mob, and the line can be breached in the blink of an eye.
But the Davis incident was something more sinister, and the egregiousness of the action can be seen in the fallout. The university has placed the police chief and two officers on paid leave, and there have been widespread calls for the resignation of the university president.
Surely there will be investigations and conclusions regarding the use of pepper spray on peaceful demonstrators at Cal-Davis. But for now we have a moment that can galvanize sympathy for the movement.