Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The "Bull" Connor of His Age

This post does not intend to advocate any particular political or social stance, but merely to comment on a similarity I have noticed between the "uprising" of the 1960s, which came out of the Civil Rights movement, and that phenomenon's direct descendant, the Occupy Wall Street movement. I am a historian-in-training, and this is intended merely as a comment on history.  It is, however, history to which I have been a witness, at both times, though from a remote distance, through television and now through the internet.  And, as a genealogist, I am keenly interested in the historical milieu in which my ancestors lived, as well as in commenting on the historical milieu in which I, now an "ancestor" myself to my daughters and grandson, have lived.

In the Civil Rights movement, there was an iconic figure: Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama. Connor became infamous for ordering police to use fire hoses to disperse peaceful black demonstrators, including children. The rest of the nation got a shocking look at what went on in the "Jim Crow" nation, as they saw on the television news reports helpless, peacefully assembled people whose skin happened to be dark tumbling down a city street, propelled by the powerful wash from a fire hose. It was a wake-up moment in which "Bull" Connor became a household name and a symbol of the violence, repression, and hate which blacks had suffered for centuries.

University of California, Davis, campus police officer Lt. John Pike has become the "Bull" Connor of his age for an unnecessary and arrogant act: pepper-spraying peaceful student demonstrators who had shown no overt act of violence. Pike is now also an iconic image, like "Bull" Connor. He is a symbol, unwittingly appearing as a bully, and, as the Occupy movement no doubt holds, a lackey of the corporate state. It is unlikely that he gave any conscious thought to what might be the consequences of his action in spraying those students. It is highly doubtful he had any notion of being compared to, much less becoming as iconic a figure as,"Bull" Connor.

In that moment, Lt. Pike lost control of his public image. A report on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" yesterday (21 November) illuminates just how completely that loss of control has been. The story discussed the "casually pepper-spraying cop" meme which has swept the internet. In this meme, a photograph of Lt. Pike using the pepper-spray has been "photoshopped" into classic paintings, including one showing him at the assembly of the Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence, pepper-spraying the document.

The actions of "Bull" Connor have been credited (in the article linked above at Connor's full name) by a historian writing for the Alabama Department of Archives and History, as having led to the passage of the most sweeping Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It remains to be seen where the actions of Lt. John Pike may lead.

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