Occupational hazards

Wayne Tilcock/AP/Press Association Images

Wayne Tilcock/AP/Press Association Images

Update, April 2016: Earlier this month the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported that UC Davis hired PR firm Nevins and Associates to bury online search results about an infamous incident in 2011 in which pepper spray was used on students. In total, the newspaper reported, the university spent at least $175,000 on trying to rehabilitate its online reputation. The news resulted in fresh calls for UC Davis chancellor, Linda Katehi, to resign. Katehi responded with a message on the UC Davis website in which she apologised for “a series of highly publicised missteps” in 2011 and 2012, although she denied that the university’s efforts at online rehabilitation were “to erase online content or rewrite history”. 

When we visited Davis back in January 2012, photographer Wayne Tilcock still seemed uncertain over whether he made the right decision by publishing a photograph that would have such an enormous impact on the university, the town, the students involved, and on John Pike, the police officer with the spray can, who in October 2013 was awarded more than $38,000 in compensation by the university for “psychiatric injury” and “trauma” caused during his employment. Four and a half years later, Tilcock’s photo of John Pike pepper-spraying students is all over the news once again. Here’s the story we published back then in issue #5 in full.


A lone protester on the UC Davis quad is clutching a placard: “Ask me about banning plastic bags!” As students cycle past him with barely a glance – cars are rare sights on campus – you sense he’s preaching to the converted. At the edge of the quad, a female student’s sign reads “Give Blood – Free Ice Cream!”: a few steps away, the young man at the Davis College Republicans desk seems thoroughly bored of his own company.

It’s the morning of Tuesday 17th January 2012 and UC Davis almost looks like a perfectly wholesome Californian campus. Almost. The centre of the quad is home to a small campsite, and at noon today, 200 Occupy UC Davis protesters will gather around the nine tents and march through campus, ending up at an unused building which they plan to take over. The campsite marks the spot where two months ago Lt John Pike pepper-sprayed a row of non-violent student protesters sitting cross-legged on the ground.

The photos of the incident spread quickly and widely. Davis – population around 65,000 – had never seen anything like it. Everybody in this semi-rural spot, where town and gown are almost inseparable, felt the impact.

Davis was little more than farmland when the University of California arrived with its chequebook in 1908. Today it’s one of the most educated cities in America (almost 70 per cent of residents have graduate degrees) and is famed for its liberal politics. Before November 2011, the town was best known for its extensive network of cycle paths and its annual Whole Earth Festival, a huge celebration of sustainable living. Now, however, if the residents of this proud, pretty place type “Davis California” into Google, predictive search will suggest they’re looking for “Davis California pepper spray”.

The whole world is watching!

It happened on the afternoon of 18th November 2011. The students sat beneath a banner which read “Defend Public Education”. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, they had been campaigning against spiralling tuition fees and what they saw as the increased privatisation of state education in California. Their arms were linked, their heads were bowed.

Pike stood a few yards away, shaking a red bottle. A woman shouted “cover your noses!” and the crowd began chanting “the whole world is watching!”. The officer wasn’t deterred. There was a disturbing casualness to the way Pike strolled up and down the row of students, spraying a bright orange liquid in the direction of their faces. Through the spluttering and coughing a man could be heard shouting “you guys are supposed to protect us!”

I think about John Pike all the time. It was my decision to identify him in the picture caption. I wanted a human element”

The onlooking crowd chanted “shame on you” as they started to walk towards the police, who began backing off campus. Some officers appeared stunned, even shamefaced, and their expressions were caught on dozens of camera-phones. In fact, everything that happened was captured from multiple angles. Most importantly, Wayne Tilcock of the Davis Enterprise was at the right place at the right time when Pike pulled out the pepper-spray.

The Enterprise’s news reporter had called for a photographer when he learned that police were moving in to clear the protesters from the quad. “I was meant to be at the retirement home photographing old folks learning how to use iPads,” Tilcock recalls. The tech-savvy retirees would have to wait a little longer for their 15 minutes of fame.

CAPTION? Photo: Matthew Lee

Occupy protesters at UC Davis express solidarity with campaigners at Riverside, a University of California campus where students accused police of violent behaviour. Photo: Matthew Lee

Upon arriving at the quad Tilcock instinctively got up close to Pike: moments later the campus policeman started to spray the students. “The spray was so orange,” Tilcock recalls. “A lot of people asked me if it had been Photoshopped. It looked like spray tan.” He returned to the office to upload his images, but with no Saturday edition it would be another 36 hours before they could be published. Wanting his work to be seen, he tweeted it to his handful of followers. It was retweeted and within hours thousands of people had seen Lt John Pike pepper-spraying UC Davis students. The Enterprise’s servers strained under the sudden influx of traffic. And within a few days, millions of people around the world had seen the photograph. It has since been hailed as one of the most iconic images of 2012 by Time magazine. There is talk of nominating it for a Pulitzer. It was a bit of an anticlimax, Tilcock admits, to return to the retirement homes and schoolyard bakesales afterwards.

“I think about John Pike all the time,” Tilcock says. “It was my decision to identify him in the picture caption. I wanted a human element. It wasn’t just some guy spraying some student, it was Lt John Pike spraying David Buscho. I was worried it might have negative repercussions and of course I didn’t think the photo would go round the world like it did. Humans sometimes make wrong decisions in the heat of the moment and he’ll now have to deal with all the bad stuff that’s happened. So I still think about what would have happened if I hadn’t identified him. And I think I made the right decision.”

As a senior figure in the UC Davis police force, John Pike was a familiar face on campus but nobody I spoke to in town knew much about him. We know from public records that he earns more than $110,000 a year. And we know he is now on paid leave along with chief of police Annette Spicuzza and a fellow pepper-spraying officer. We also know what it says in UC Davis official policy – that campus police officers, who are employed by the university itself, are authorised to use force that “reasonably appears necessary, given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the event, to effectively bring an incident under control”.

The investigation may be ongoing, but Pike’s infamy is assured. It’s that relaxed demeanour, that apparent lack of concern. There’s no tension, no strain, no fear of reprisals as he attacks the unarmed students. Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post summed it up, writing that “the apparent absence of empathy from the police officer, applying a toxic chemical to humans as if they were garden pests, is shocking”.

Pike was easy prey for the internet’s meme-makers and he starred in a series of blackly comic Photoshopped images collectively called “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop”, which see Pike casually spraying baby seals, Pike casually spraying the US Constitution, Pike casually spraying Jesus at the Last Supper.

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi waits to speak on 21st November 2011. Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP/Press Association Images

UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi waits to speak on 21st November 2011. Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP/Press Association Images

In the media kerfuffle that followed, Pike’s name was mentioned alongside Lynndie England’s – the former US soldier convicted for maltreating detainees in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Anonymous, the ‘hackivist’ group behind ‘Operation Payback’, released a video in which Pike’s phone number and home address were revealed. Megyn Kelly of Fox News weighed in on the lieutenant’s side, arguing that the cops didn’t use excessive force and that pepper spray is “essentially a food product”.

But the target of Occupy UC Davis protesters’ ire isn’t John Pike or Annette Spicuzza. They’re most angry with Linda Katehi, the UC Davis chancellor who ordered the police to remove students from the quad (although she insists she did not authorise the use of pepper-spray). The day after the incident she hosted a press conference. Students surrounded the building and she initially refused to leave afterwards, fearing for her safety.

The footage of Katehi’s eventual departure is incredibly powerful. Not a single word is heard for the first 75 seconds of her tortuous walk to her car. It’s hard to believe she’s surrounded by hundreds of students, assembled to silently witness their chancellor’s “walk of shame”. It’s dark outside but Katehi’s pained, embarrassed expression is illuminated the whole distance by the flashes of cameras. After another agonising minute of silent walking she enters a car and is whisked away past dozens of students sitting cross-legged along the road, their arms linked in solidarity.

Three days later, Katehi appeared in the quad to make a speech. “I am here to apologise,” she said. “I feel horrible for what happened.” But she refused to resign. She told the interviewer from the ABC network’s ‘Good Morning America’ that she was needed to “start the healing process and move forward.” I’ve no chance of speaking to Katehi, but I tried to arrange an interview with Claudia Morain, the university’s news service director, whose department handled international media enquiries after the incident. At the end of January, it was revealed that UC Davis spent approximately $100,000 on a media crisis consultant to help them handle the sudden worldwide attention, prompting further criticism from Occupy protesters who think the money should have been spent more wisely. My interview with Morain never happens. When I call her office, she explains that she’s uncomfortable speaking on record about the incident while the investigation is ongoing. We agree that I’ll send her the questions by email and she’ll see what she can do. A few days later I receive her response: “You know, I think we’re still too much in the thick of this”.

Davis And Cairo Are 1 Fist

Tuesday 17th January 2012: re-Occupation day at UC Davis. It’s approaching noon and we’re gathering in the quad for the march to Dutton Hall, an administrative building which had been briefly occupied by the protesters in November. We sing a locally penned song to the tune of ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’: “We are the students refusing UC fees / Down came the cops, who maced us with ease / Out came the truth to end Katehi’s reign / And now we’re coming back to Occupy again!” The student next to me quietly confesses that it’s not the greatest protest song ever written.

There are speeches under a “Stand With UCR” banner, a reference to the University of California’s campus in Riverside, a town to the east of Los Angeles, where police have recently fired rubber bullets at Occupy protesters. To chants of “They say cutbacks, we say fuck that!” and “No cuts, no fees, occupy, decolonise!”, we march to the recently vacated Cross Cultural Center. A huge sign is unfurled along the building’s outside wall: “Davis And Cairo Are 1 Fist”.  A man waving the American flag is heckled and asked to leave for displaying “a sign of empire” and – after we enter the building unchallenged – a man whom protesters inform me works for the UC Davis Student Comms team is aggressively forced out of the building by students, who call him a lackey and a spy.

The students explore their new base. Concerns are voiced about the separate male and female toilets (“it’s gender control!”) and the lack of kitchen. I step over placards saying “Fuck The Pigs” and “Queers Against Capital”. It’s time for a series of votes, each determined by counting thumbs, either up (yes), down (no) or to the side (abstention). There’s a debate about how to spend the $5,000 in the kitty, and a discussion over semantics; whether the sign they erect should say “Occupy/Decolonise” or “Decolonise UC Davis Occupation”, and whether the terms “occupy” and “decolonise” are too loaded to be used at all. But there is broad agreement that UC Davis staff, police and the media should not be allowed in the building. I quickly stuff my notepad in my bag.

CAPTION? Photo: Matthew Lee

“Davis + Cairo Are 1 Fist” – Davis protesters claim solidarity with Arab spring activists.  Photo: Matthew Lee

I’ve been watching Julia Ann Easley, UC Davis’s senior public information representative, quietly keeping an eye on the protesters since we convened on the quad at noon. I pass the vans from the local affiliate of ABC News and cross over the road to speak to her. She’s revealing nothing and our conversation is nothing more than an innocuous chat about getting a wireless connection on campus. When I return to the Occupy HQ I’m approached by a couple of students. Don’t I know she’s a snitch? What did I say about their meeting? I assure them I said nothing.

“It feels like I’m living two lives”

Back in the occupied building I meet Ian Lee. In the photographs published in newspapers all over the world in November, he looks apprehensive. He had every right to be nervous – Lt Pike was about to spray him in the face. Lee barely moved throughout the entire incident. It was a strange way to become famous.

“I was in my dorm doing homework,” says the first-year student, who’d only been at Davis a few weeks at the time of the incident. “I saw on Facebook that the riot cops had arrived on campus and the students had formed a human chain to protect our camp.” Lee walked to the quad to join them and moments later he was temporarily blinded. Unsurprisingly, it’s all a bit of a blur after that. “It feels like you’re on fire,” he recalls. “That’s the only way I can describe it. I was treated by a firefighter and then went back to my dorm to take a shower and my face seemed to catch fire again so I went to the health centre for treatment.”

By the time I got back, people’s faces were orange. There were people throwing up blood”

“I was in the New York Times, The LA Times, Time magazine,” he continues. “It’s disorientating to see the photographs and videos of me being sprayed. I feel a bit disconnected from it all. Even after two months I don’t think I fully understand what happened.” He returned home over winter break to discover he was a minor celebrity in the suburb of Los Angeles he lives in. His dad, who was involved in the Vietnam War protests, was very supportive of his actions but his mum is scared about his ongoing involvement in the movement.

CAPTION? Photo: Matthew Lee

Protesters reoccupy a university building on campus. Photo: Matthew Lee

“It feels like I’m living two lives, one as a student and one as a protester,” Lee continues. “I believe the goal of a public university – to provide a first-class education at an affordable fee – is important, but I fear the university is increasingly becoming privatised.” 

Such views are echoed by PhD student Kristin Koster, who juggles her role in Occupy UC Davis with studying and teaching nineteenth century French literature. On 18th November she was collecting her son from school when she received a text message informing her that campus police were going to clear the quad. “There were hundreds of students there,” she recalls. “I immediately sat with them but when I realised they were going to spray us I stood up. I’m asthmatic and didn’t want to be exposed to pepper spray. I realised that none of us had Maalox, which is what you need after being sprayed, so I ran off to find some. By the time I got back, people’s faces were orange. There were people throwing up blood. And then this massive crowd of students shouted the police off campus. It’s incredible. They were marching backwards with their guns still drawn, and we forced them to back off campus into the streets.”

I walk off campus into the streets myself, and zigzag through town trying to take in as much as possible on the way to the Amtrak station. I pass rows of sorority housing with large Greek letters on the walls. I pass cute coffee shops, independent book stores and yoga and pilates studios. I wander past the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame. For the whole of its 100-year history, this small town has been a peaceful place.

And then, for the briefest of moments in November, a roiling wave of dissent and anger passed through Davis, and a global uprising found its new frontline.

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