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Should Pepper Spray Be TIME’s Person of the Year?

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on November 30, 2011

What started out as a joke has become an increasingly real proposition: Even though it’s not a “person,” we must now begin to debate whether Pepper Spray should grace TIME’s most discussed cover.

No person, place or thing has come to define the absurdity of 2011 more than the “food product, essentially,” this suddenly ubiquitous lachrymatory agent/chemical weapon.

Pepper spray, essentially, gave birth to the national media’s recognition of the Occupy Wall Street movement when NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna cowardly pepper-sprayed some unwitting young women. Without his depraved indifference to the freedom to assemble and the freedom of speech, the national media, and by extension the nation, might never have begun to discuss income inequality in earnest.

The pepper-spraying incidents then moved west: The notoriously corrupt Tulsa police department doused some eyes while evicting the Occupy protesters in that city, then Seattle police sprayed 84-year-old Dorli Rainey as she checked out the protests there. Portland police continued the Pacific Northwest trend, and the instantly iconic image of a young woman taking it in the face went viral.

And who can forget about the breathtaking nonchalance of Lt. John Pike, who callously pepper sprayed nonviolent protesters on the UC Davis campus? That gave birth to two amazing memes: Pike spraying things and people throughout history, and FOX News’ Megyn Kelly’s speciously defending the tactic by equating it to something you might put on a salad. Mmm, tastes like deceit.

Then came America’s favorite holiday, Black Friday, which saw two such incidents: A Southern California woman used the product to gain some sort of discount shopping advantage, while in Kinston, North Carolina, off-duty officers used pepper spray to make an arrest at a local Walmart.

Now we can add several more incidents, the first at a New York City high school.

A 14-year-old Harlem student blasted her classmates with pepper spray Tuesday, sending eight students to the hospital with minor injuries.

Education officials are investigating the incident, which occurred in an Academy for Social Action classroom around 2:30 p.m.

Eight students who inhaled the noxious chemicals were rushed from the W. 129th St. school to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, Education Department spokeswoman Margie Feinberg said.

Police who responded to the incident issued a summons to the student.

Also, at a protest of an American Legislative Exchange Council meeting in Phoenix:

The protesters for the most part were orderly, but at one point, police used pepper spray to move a group of about half a dozen people who were not clearing an area in front of an entrance.

There’s also been recent reports of pepper spray incidents at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, a high school in New Haven, Connecticut, and Vancouver’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Between Black Friday and these latest episodes, it’s clear that civilians have picked up on the trend, one that’s evidently more dangerous and disturbing than planking or Tebowing. In our monkey-see, monkey-do culture, a world filled with copycats, it’s unlikely we’ve heard the last of such incidents.

This year is not without its quality candidates: Clear cases could be made for Occupy Wall Street (and TIME could get cheeky with “The 99%” or “The 1%”), Anonymous, Steve Jobs, Casey Anthony, Arab Spring protesters, Herman Cain, The Fukushima 50, Gabby Giffords and others.

But has anything come to define our collective moral outrage and societal decay quite like pepper spray has in 2011? Pepper spray, in fact, has acted as the mirror held up to our faces, even more so than Occupy Wall Street. Is this the era in which we live now? Have our local (and campus!) police departments become so militarized and apathetically insensitive as to treat nonviolent protesters like lab rats? Have some citizens taken it upon themselves to use it as a weapon in everyday life?

The employment of this chemical weapon has gotten so out of hand that the expert who helped the FBI develop it in the 1980s and set the guidelines for its use by police, Kamran Loghman, says he’s “shocked” and “bewildered” by what he’s seen lately.

Think about the iconic moments of the year: Osama bin Laden’s killing, the Arab Spring revolutions, the Japanese tsunami and nuclear scare, some high-profile weather-related tragedies. Now think about the iconic *images* of the year. Perhaps it’s because they’re more recent, but doesn’t your brain go to UC Davis, an elderly lady in Seattle, a Walmart shopper and the madness of it all?

Here’s your cover right here:

Or maybe this one:

If TIME can give a lifetime achievement award to Mark Zuckerberg for his role in developing the social network, surely they can honor pepper spray, which is clawing at our social fabric.

Do you think this is a reasonable option for TIME? Weigh in with your thoughts, as well as your thoughts for who should be TIME’s Person of the Year in the comments below…

Slade Sohmer is co-founder and editor-in-chief of HyperVocal. Tweet him @hypervocal.

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