At the University of California Davis campus in 2011 a group of student activists had occupied the University Quadrangle for several weeks.
The students were part of the global Occupy movement, that began with Occupy Wall Street. A response to the global financial crisis, and particularly the way the crisis was resolved by political and corporate elites with no consequence to the financial actors who had caused the crisis.
The cost of the financial crisis was borne by ordinary people, while Wall Street continued its business as usual model of global capitalism.
The Occupy movement began with ordinary people and activists trying to ‘occupy’ Wall Street. The catch cry of the movement is we are the 99%. The 99% who are excluded from most of the world resources.
These movements sprang up all over the world, using the Wall Street protest as a model or template. Groups would occupy commercial or public spaces, symbolically ‘reclaiming’ them for the vast majority of people in a community or society who they argued were excluded by relations of power and capital.
At the UC Davis Occupy movement students were camped out in the campus quadrangle. The students were protesting the university's decision to raise tuition fees, excluding people without the means to pay from higher education.
The chancellor eventually ordered campus police to move the students on. The police asked students to move. They refused. The campus police use force, with one cop spraying students, who were sitting on the ground arm in arm, with pepper spray.
This action has all sorts of repercussions.
This case helps to illustrate how events in the world are made meaningful using media and how those meanings spill out and circulate in unexpected ways. But also, we can observe how powerful groups try to control and organise how the event is made sense of.
And, beneath that we see how groups who don’t have power try to resist or unsettle the attempt of powerful groups to produce common sense about it.
The cop’s act is a violent one. He uses coercive force. He is an authority figure licensed to use force against the students by the university and by extension the state.
But the act is clearly also a symbolic one, a process of representation. The cop is saying to other students on campus if you want to sit in the quadrangle and protest you’ll get pepper sprayed.
The students clearly understand it as a symbolic act. You can hear them chanting ‘the whole world is watching’ and they are filming it.
The students understand that they can take the cop’s use of force and use it to represent their claims about excessive use of power. They perhaps believe if they share video of it people will witness this and won’t approve what they see when they see it represented online.
By representing the cop’s actions as an excessive use of force, the students are able to connect the incident to the bigger claim of their protest about the entrenched privilege and the abuse of power the occupy movement protests were taking aim at.
Here the students have taken a violent act and turn it into a representation of the forms of excessive power and violence they are protesting against.
They put it on the internet where it becomes part of the world wide representations of the occupy movement.
They claim representation of the event.
The Chancellor needs to respond.
Local reporters and students film the incident where the cop pepper sprays students sitting, apparently peacefully on the ground arm in arm, engaged in a form of peaceful civil disobedience, and place it on YouTube where it gains intense media coverage from campus, local and national media.
If the representational tools the students have access to are smartphones and YouTube, then the Chancellor has access to formal media institutions and their rituals. She calls a press conference and invites journalists.
The chancellor tries to take control of the story again. She tries to explain to establishment media – the professional meaning makers – her side: yes it looks bad, but this is why my actions were legitimate, the students have been there for several weeks, they were preventing others from fair and safe use of the campus, we were reasonable and they refused to move on, they were disrupting others fair enjoyment of the campus, and so on.
This puts the chancellor under pressure to explain the university’s actions.
She calls a press conference, and we can assume acting on advice from university Public Relations professionals, carefully invites just selected media organisations to attend. The university here is attempting to manage how the media represents the event.
Students find out the chancellor has done this.
We can understand what the chancellor is attempting to do. She is trying to calm things down by only inviting in selected media organisations, to tell them her side of the story, and get them to report her version of events.
She is trying to frame and control how the event is represented in an effort to protect the university’s, and her own, reputation.
Students find out and surround the building where the press conference is taking place. They are upset they are excluded. They want events to be told from their perspective.
There is a power struggle unfolding about how an event is represented, and that power struggle involves use of media technologies, control of institutional spaces like buildings and campus, and relationships with other powerful groups like media organisations.
The chancellor is using her institutional resources to attempt to control how the event is represented, the students are trying to garner their tactical resources to press back with their representation of events.
They want to tell their side of the story.
The students are good at bypassing the mainstream media by going direct to social media platforms.
The chancellor was unable to control this media-making activity.
The chancellor tries to regain control of the story and tell the media the students’ story is wrong. She attempts to reframe how the event is represented.
But, she makes a tactical error by locking the students out.
Because what the students do is use this as an opportunity to produce another provocative representation.
They surround the building. The chancellor is stuck in there for several hours.
Then something quite powerful happens. Student leaders see their exclusion as an opportunity to extend their representation of the event.
Following the press conference, the chancellor leaves and walks to her car through a silent guard as students line the walkway and observe her in silence. They ‘bear witness’ to her power to silence them.
The video is provocative and powerful. Their silence indicates their exclusion, but their collective capacity to bear witness represents their righteousness.
They could’ve surrounded the building and behaved in a violent ways. But instead they make a symbolically astute move. The chancellor silenced them by excluding them, they represent their exclusion by bearing silent witness. In doing so, they create a much more powerful representation than the chancellor is able to via her press conference.
Where the chancellor attempts to use institutional power to control how the story is told, the students use tactical manoeuvres to respond with their own representation of events.
Here we have a real world interaction between students, cops, chancellor, and media. Each tries to use whatever resources and power they have to affect how the event is represented, how the story is told to others.
The chancellor has access to institutional resources, the students to their everyday technologies and tactical networks.
The students’ apparatus is social media accounts, smartphones, and so on.
Something else interesting happens too. The cop takes on a symbolic life of his own beyond these immediate events. Here we see how representation can ‘spill over’ forming relationships with larger meaning-making practices in a media system.
What does the cop represent?
The cop can be seen as a stand in for, his image becomes a metonym, for the excessive use of force against ordinary people, the trampling of democratic rights, the ways in which public space and right to protest is curtailed.
The cop can be reappropriated and made meaningful in other contexts. He can be symbolic, a metonym, for larger and transferrable ideas.
Search on Google Images or Know Your Meme for Casually Pepper Spray Everythign Cop. You’ll see the cop pepper spraying Rosa Parks, Bambi, Luke Skywalker, America’s forefathers at the declaration of independence, the French Revolution.
Memes are part of our popular culture. Here, what we see is the intertextual and relational nature of representation. It is a social process where to get the joke of any of the memes you need to know what combination of texts are brought into play. You need to grow up in a popular culture where you knew the story of Bambi or Star Wars to understand the innocence or cultural significance of the people or event the cop is trying to disrupt with his pepper spray. To get the larger signifiacne of the image where the cop sprays the declaration of independence you need to know what Trumbull’s painting depicts, and why it is a foundational event in how Americans express and understand their democratic values.
Memes are intertextual.
We see a range of groups attempting to represent the event, and in doing so, to set out particular versions of ‘what happened’ as legitimate.
The memes live on. They continue to circulate on the internet. If you search pepper spray cop, or even UC Davis, top Google results often point you to this event.
Public record requests by journalists revealed that in the years following the event the university increased its strategic communications budget by $2.5 million. This included paying consultancies $175,000 to attempt to ‘remove’ negative images of the ‘pepper spray’ incident from Google search results and social media platforms using search engine optimisation techniques.
The university was investing serious resources in the ongoing management of representations of the event.
Depending on which story or representations you saw you might make different judgments about whether or not the cops actions were legitimate, whether it was OK for the cop to spray the students.
We also see the powerful using their institutional resources to attempt to try to control the story. We might say the powerful act strategically.
But what the powerful always contend with is those with less power using whatever resources they can get hold of creatively and tactically.
Following the work on everyday politics by Michel De Certau we can observe that if strategies come from above, tactics come from below.
This is where people use whatever resources they can get their hands on – smartphones, social media accounts, hashtags, to disrupt the mainstream representation of their event with their own perspectives and point of view.
The contest around how to make sense of the cop with his pepper spray illustrates to us the social nature of representation.
What we can take from this case is the concept of ‘representation as a social process’: humans use media technologies and institutions to portray events in the world as part of an ongoing effort to exercise, maintain, or disrupt relationships of power.
Notes | Raw footage of pepper spray incident from Aggie Studios the student media and video production studio at the University of California, Davis. Student news report from The Hub student online news service from Blue Devil High in Davis, California. The silent student protest also from The Hub.