UC Davis ‘pepper spray’ video: The accidental journalist

Traditional media watches from sidelines as UC Davis student’s ‘pepper spray’ YouTube video becomes iconic image of police violence against protesters

UC Davis sophomore Thomas Fowler had no idea his pepper-spraying cop video—which garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube in its first 48 hours online—would go viral.

UC Davis sophomore Thomas Fowler had no idea his pepper-spraying cop video—which garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube in its first 48 hours online—would go viral.

Photo By wes davis

Second-year biochemistry student Thomas Fowler had just gotten off work last Friday when he saw something rather unusual: Dozens of UC Davis police marching across the quad, equipped with riot gear, on a collision course with campus Occupy protesters. He rushed over to join onlookers. He also got out his iPhone.

“I started taping once I saw the officer getting the [pepper-spray] cans ready,” says Fowler, who was but feet away as Lt. John Pike began showering students with orange chemical gas, at point-blank range, as they were seated passively on sidewalk with arms interlocked. He continued filming as activists huddled together in a row, covering their faces, while onlookers shrieked.

Fowler immediately posted the video on YouTube, at 4:18 p.m., and it was quickly popular. By the time he went to bed early Saturday morning, it had about 6,000 views.

When he woke up, though, things had blown up beyond his expectations.

By noon Saturday, the eight-minute video had more than 250,000 views and was already on CNN.com, The New York Times and most major websites. The Associated Press and other national outlets were contacting Fowler, asking for permission to use the video and its images. The clip was the lead story on The Huffington Post in addition to countless other sites worldwide, including the United Kingdom’s The Guardian and Al-Jazeera.

“I never expected it to be viral,” admits Fowler, who says he is not an avid YouTube user. “To be honest, I thought my video would just be something my friends on Facebook would see and comment on.”

On Monday, more than 1.3 million viewers had watched his original YouTube video. This is not to mention the worldwide audience who saw it on TV.

Fowler told SN&R that while videotaping, he remembered thinking that the actions of police were “appalling.” And in particular “the officer who did the spraying,” he said, “because he seemed like he was enjoying what he was doing, which made it that much worse to watch.”

This sense of shock, though, didn’t immediately translate to reports by conventional media. Early TV news reports, for instance, didn’t question the aggressive nature of police tactics. UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi wrote an email to staff and faculty approving of how officers handled the situation. And The Sacramento Bee reported that, while pepper spray was used, it was because of what UC Davis police chief Annette Spicuzza described as a “volatile” situation. (Spicuzza and the two police officers who used the pepper spray were later put on administrative leave.)

Media reporting shifted radically by Saturday afternoon, however, after Fowler’s clip exploded online. The world’s eyes were on Davis, California—and these eyes were stunned. Local media followed suit, reporting on calls for Katehi’s resignation and growing student and alumni indignation.

A screen grab from Fowler’s video. Unlike early traditional media reports, the video’s unedited footage set off global outrage.

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Nationally, some media outlets began to theorize that the video would spark a turning point as far as recognizing excessive police violence against Occupy protesters countrywide. A writer for The Atlantic compared the video’s influence to the “tank man” photograph from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

UC Davis Technocultural Studies professor Bob Ostertag, who writes about media and politics, goes so far as to say Fowler’s YouTube clip will transform U.S. law-enforcement policy.

“[It’s] going to become an iconic image of police violence in America,” he argued, “in the same way the video of the college student being gunned down in the streets of Tehran became an iconic image of violence in Tehran.”

Ostertag, who knows many of the Occupy UC Davis protesters, praised students’ use of digital media such as YouTube and Ustream while documenting recent events and other protests.

“Without these new tools, nobody would of known about this,” he said.

He also blasted traditional media and the university’s initial condoning of police violence. “If there are people in the administration who don’t see the magnitude of sending RoboCops to chemically assault peaceful students, then they need a reality check,” Ostertag said.

Senior Chris Wong, who’s been part of Occupy UC Davis since its inception on October 15, has been using www.ustream.com to document the movement. So this past Saturday afternoon, when he learned on Facebook of an impromptu protest at Chancellor Katehi’s “pepper spray” press conference, he showed up ready to report.

And, by the time he arrived just before 5 p.m., students had already interrupted the conference and surrounded the building—with Katehi still inside. Wong had with him a car-battery charger, which he’d plugged into his phone to power a live-video feed of the protest on Ustream.

“It’s raw footage, you see everything happening,” he explained. “You don’t misconstrue the story.” This is important to Davis activists: After Friday’s reporting of the pepper-spray incident, many are wary of traditional media.

“We do feel we get taken out of context a fair amount,” Wong told SN&R.

On Saturday night, though, Wong’s Ustream video was the only “media outlet” to document in real time what people are referring to as Katehi’s “walk of shame”: After remaining in the building for hours, the chancellor finally exited, only to be greeted by hundreds of protesters, who were seated side-by-side, arm-in-arm, on each side of the road, their numbers spanning more than three blocks. The students sat in complete silence as the chancellor somberly walked to a waiting vehicle.

“There’s a coming together of the student community that was manifest with the silent walk of the chancellor,” explained professor Ostertag. “This is a moment, and they’re very aware that they’re connected to the broader explosion of activism in the rest of the country.”

Indeed, thousands watched Wong’s live Ustream, and YouTube videos of Katehi’s walk racked up more than a half-million views in less than 24 hours. Between him and Fowler, the whole world really is watching.