Politics

Why the Uvalde “Hand Sanitizer Cop” Is So Unforgettable

It’s the perfectly grim encapsulation of this moment.

A man in a ballistic vest and helmet uses a hand sanitizer dispenser.
Austin American-Statesman/YouTube

On Tuesday, two local Texas news outlets, the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE, published a 77-minute video of the May 24 Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde. The footage, which someone inside the official investigation leaked to the press, came from a combination of cameras: One was mounted on a nearby funeral home; one is a police body cam. But by far the bulk of the footage is from a school surveillance camera, mounted in the hallway that led to the classrooms where the gunman killed 19 kids and two teachers.

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The American-Statesman edited this footage down to a four-minute-long version of the video that shows what the paper’s Manny Garcia termed “critical moments.” Among those are two that are not likely to be included in official timelines but are indelible when viewed in the moment. First, at 11:36 a.m. (2:22 time stamp in the Statesman’s four-minute edit), an officer takes out his phone and looks at it, holding it in his left hand while his right hand points his weapon at the ground. His phone’s lock screen is the logo for the Punisher, a Marvel antihero whose bloody vigilantism has made him a favorite of cops and soldiers nationwide in the past few decades. Many of us have lived for years seeing that particular stylized skull, with its four elongated lines in lieu of teeth and a chin, on pickup trucks, flags, and T-shirts—years being a tiny bit afraid upon seeing it that this person, who is certainly armed, is not to be trusted. Now, we’ve seen it on the phone of a guy who did absolutely nothing when it really counted.

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But if I were nominating “Camera on the wall of the Robb Elementary hallway” for the Photo of the Year award, I’d submit, instead, the freeze frame on one officer at 12:30 p.m. (3:20 time stamp in the Statesman’s four-minute edit). This officer, wearing a helmet and a ballistic vest over his checked buttoned-up shirt, steps toward the hand sanitizer dispenser mounted on the wall of the hallway, takes a squirt, and rubs it on his hands. Then, he takes cover, once again, behind the corner. When the classroom is finally breached, at 12:50 p.m., he’s looking at his phone.

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The hand sanitizer moment is striking, when you first see it, but it’s also impossible to shake. I’m certainly not alone in fixating on it. This is a classic punctum: that moment captured in a photograph that means something slightly different to everyone, and that challenges you, making it difficult to understand why it’s so moving. That’s why this guy is becoming a meme. (One Twitter user asked the DALL-E generator to show images of “cop getting hand sanitizer during a school shooting,” with extremely grim results, and there’s a lot of “out, out damn spot.”)

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There are obvious reasons why this one sticks: The guy was so safe, so incredibly safe; he was wearing armor and a helmet and hiding behind a nice, solid cement-block corner while unarmed kids smeared blood on themselves and pretended to be dead right down the hall. All that abundant protection, and he still needed just a little more. But there’s also the way that dispenser, mounted on the wall, pins this image in time. This massacre happened, Officer Clean Hands reminds us, two years and change into COVID, a problem we first tried to solve by doing easy things like installing hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere. For a parent who had little kids during COVID, the image may also evoke a small flash of memory: a child reaching out their cupped hands for “some hand sani, please.” For parents, it puts their children into this picture—as if they weren’t before.

Then there’s the last, most important thing: I suspect this germophobic officer did not sanitize out of boredom, as some have suggested, or blasé indifference to the situation. I think he was nervous. The image reminds us, on a base level, that real-life cops are fallible in stressful situations. We’ve known for a while that when cops get scared, they do the wrong thing (Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, John Crawford). Uvalde taught us that their fear keeps them from doing the right thing too. Hand Sani Cop will long be the poster boy for that realization.

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