“The Moral Power of an Image”

UC Davis, the Internet, and the Persistence of Memory

A policeman shoots pepper spray into protestors’ eyes at UC DavisJames Fallows has written movingly and insightfully about the police officer shooting pepper spray into the eyes of a row of seated people. Part of a protest, these people were wholly non-violent and posed no threat at all to the police or to anyone else. His post, called “The Moral Power of an Image,” unpacks the elements of still and moving pictures of the nonviolent UC Davis protests to which police reacted in a morally unsupportable way.

 What Falllows writes is so discerning that I’m tempted to just tell you to go and read it. And you should read it. But I’ll add a few comments of my own.

While Fallows notes the omnipresence of cameras at protests today and their use by onlookers, this reality is given greater reach by our decentralized communications technologies. The pictures are quickly uploaded, as is the video (to YouTube), and blogs and Twitter and emails and Facebook carry them outward, distributing them very, very quickly.

While our new communications technologies enable these images to be transmitted and spread, sometimes these do not connect people beyond interlocking circles and communities. However, the mass media has already picked up this image, so it is by no means sequestered.

Moreover, this ready movement of images does not undermine emotional power. There are pictures which retain their emotional resonance over long periods of time. These include the pictures of civil rights protestors being firehosed, one of which Fallows shows, and the images from the Vietnam War of a man being shot point-blank or a child running down the road, and the image from China of the man standing before the tank.

Such images can become part of our collective memory. As such, even if the details become fuzzy like the melting timepieces in Dail’s painting, “The Persistence of Memory,” they retain emotional truth.

Finally, Fallows is correct that the moral strength of the protestors in carrying out non-violent action — in chanting to the police in a way that calls out what happens but diffuses the moment — is truly exemplary. What I wonder is what about the students — their education, some training, their temperaments — enabled them to act in this way.

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Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.