Reading The Pix did a "deep dive" into this picture over on instagram, which you can examine here. As usual, I found their discussion fairly uninteresting, but my attention was caught by the photo. Let us, therefore, examine it.
Let us begin by an examination of the contents of the frame. Let's go back to front.
A storefront, at the corner of Tilden Ave and Bedford Ave, Brooklyn. An area that appears to be undergoing gentrification, just like everywhere else. Home values have tripled in the last decade, the storefront has recently changed hands (or at least branding on it.) In front of the storefront, a group of what appear to be protesters, including many black faces, and many apparently recording with their phones. In front of the protesters, a sedan in the far lane of the street.
On the left side of the frame, a group of uniformed cops, blocking the sedan's path. Centered in the frame, a cop with what looks like a spray bottle, ejecting a stream of liquid to the right. On the right, a group of protesters, at least 3 of them. Two are identifiable as probably white. The nearest figure appears to be a white woman, face apparently averted from the spraying cop.
Both the central cop and the nearest protester are in the near lane of traffic. There is a splatter of some sort of liquid on the ground, and apparently on the cop's pants.
The various lines of attention are peculiar. The protesters in the background attend to their phones, which we assume are directed at pretty much what we can see, but from the other side. The cops frame-left are looking all over the place, or perhaps nowhere. It doesn't seem to mean anything, but it is striking that nobody in frame is particularly looking at anyone else we can see.
The cop in the center seems to be looking at the protesters frame right, behind the foreground woman, and the foreground woman isn't looking at anything.
It's a picture that is structurally a lot like this one. The facts enumerated in this one would overlap a great deal with that one, and there is similarity in the dynamics of the pictures (whatever that means):
Let me quite clear clear here: I think NYPD are a bunch of fucking thugs and should all be fired. I suppose there's probably some good ones in there, but if you're good you can probably get a new job. This is not the same thing as thinking that every NYPD cop is beating the shit out of random innocent people 24x7, I rather think they spend a lot of time doing their jobs more of less competently.
Let us proceed to what one might make of this picture. The standard leftist position is that this is a police officer who has gone off the reservation and is simply randomly pepper-spraying innocent bystanders. More or less. You might suggest that they are non-violent protesters exercising their rights rather than bystanders, or whatever.
The cop appears to be shouting, his arm muscles are clenched, you could certainly see this as an extremely aggressive posture. The foreground protesters are small people, with their hands up, in a posture of submission and innocence.
We have an aggressor, performing an act of aggression, against non-violent protesters. This is what it feels like powerfully to me, and most likely to you if you're reading these words.
Consider the pro-cop position. Let us slip on some uncomfortable moccasins and walk a little ways.
The pro-cop position notes that the protesters are in what by all appearances is an active traffic lane. There is a car in the far lane, presumably Bedford Avenue is open to traffic. That position notes that there's something going on that splattered the cop's pants and the street.
Note also that none of the several cops in-frame seem to have the slightest interest in the protesters on the sidewalk in the background, nor in the evident filming that is going on. Attention, if anywhere, is roughly on the small group of white protesters standing in the traffic lane. It's not at all clear that the uniformed cops aren't simply chatting about baseball.
One might construct a hypothesis: the protesters have been throwing things at the cops (liquid splatter) but are not now doing so. A small group of protesters have blocked the street, and are refusing to move. One of the several duties of the police is, in fact, to clear traffic obstructions, and faced with a stubborn group of excited young women, pepper spray may in fact be the appropriate escalation from giving stern verbal commands which have been, thus far, ignored.
These are two possible readings.
In fact, both of the pictures mentioned above are the same situation. Protesters block the street, leaving police with few options. The entire point of the exercise is to force this exact scenario, the point is to maneuver the players in to this precise photograph, which is why we keep seeing this photograph over and over. It's dramatic as hell, but it is essentially staged. In a sense, both readings above are correct. The cop is aggressively aggressing against non-violent protesters, but has been maneuvered, on purpose, in to doing so.
Now, this is sort of the point of non-violent protest. The strategic idea here is to force the other guy to perform acts that they themselves cannot abide. Getting pepper sprayed is a victory condition. Kinda. In truth, there's a good chance that these cops here are actually doing things 100% by the book, and there's a pretty good chance that they don't have trouble abiding procedures that are actually in the manual. But boy, the photo looks bad.
The second photo, of the woman in a dress, was one of a sequence of photos. I would bet good money that the first photo also was, and that the photographer pulled out the one that looked best, probably the one with the most aggressive looking arm extension, and/or where the central cop appeared to be shouting. It's not much good if he's got a bemused smile, so that one doesn't make the cut, eh?
Let's compare, though, with this one:
This is, to be blunt, a vastly more powerful photograph. The bad guys are completely out of frame, there is no ambiguity for anyone to play with. It isn't really about the act of aggression at all, but about the aftermath. To try to justify the aggression is several steps away, and nothing justifies the girl's grief. The boy is dead, the girl grieves, that's it. No circumstances to parse, to interpret.
The photograph contains nothing that allows the bad guys any wiggle room, because they, and the circumstances, are simply missing. The only things you can try to explain are a dead boy and a weeping girl, and that's going to be hard to do.
There is no stage machinery to be noticed here, because there isn't any. If the boy was deliberately provoking the National Guardsmen, we don't see it. In fact, we don't really know what the boy was up to. Certainly the protests were rowdy as hell, and the Guardsmen were provoked, but the death of Jeffrey Miller was not part of the program. As far as we know, there is no evidence whatever that Miller went out that day to get shot.
The young woman in the first photograph, above, most likely did go out to be pepper-sprayed. The internal evidence of the frame is at least consistent with that idea. The stagecraft is fairly evident in the frame.
Doesn't make it right. If the cops had simply walked off, there would have been no photo-op, and ten minutes later the protesters would have wandered off. Or, maybe they would have kept Bedford blocked all day. So what? Brooklyn has a whole grid of streets.
The protesters got their photo-op, though, and the already-persuaded will be suitably revved up. Won't persuade anyone who wasn't already persuaded, though.
Not like that photo of Mary Ann Vecchio and Jeffrey Miller.