Laughing Gas

When Lieutenant John Pike was filmed pepper-spraying cross-legged Occupy protesters with the nonchalance of a retiree hosing down the garden, it took a day for the image to make him famous. It took two days for him to become the ‘Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop’, for Pike to be cropped into the work of Seurat and Picasso, images of Mount Rushmore and the Sgt Pepper’s album cover.

It’s not the first time that small-calibre police brutality has become a comedy meme. In 2007, when a protester hectoring Senator John Kerry was tackled and tasered, his plea to the police – “Don’t tase me, bro!” – quickly adorned ringtones and T-shirts, and was ultimately named The Yale Book of Quotations most memorable quote of the year.

Both incidents spring from an ugly new kind of real-life slapstick: the use of militarised police forces against feeble ranks of protesters and pot-growers, abetted by elements in the commentary class who believe public health care is fascism, while non-lethal weapons are a “food product”.

There is something familiarly funny about Pike, as though Tron Guy has had a suit upgrade. His buffoonish cruelty is a long way from the lethal brutality of a Kent State shooting, and the mockery he’s attracted comes off the back of one of the Occupy movement’s few unambiguous wins. But there’s also something in his treatment that seems to carry a kind of wry acceptance that this is the way things are now.

There are few forces more overvalued in the fight for civil society than satire, and the sharper edges of the state know that the ‘laughing at’ can easily become ‘laughing off’. That’s the principle the PSYOP officers at Guantanamo Bay worked on when they selected their sound torture playlist: Barney the Dinosaur made it on high rotation.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


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