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Why Did Fascist Agitators at UC Davis Reenact the Violence of the “Pepper Spray Cop”?

The “alt-right” once again displayed its latent sadism and identification with police cruelty on the UC Davis campus.

In this photoshopped image that was circulated anonymously in 2011 as part of the "pepper spray cop" meme, Lt. Pike of the UC Davis Police is inserted into a 1936 photo of Adolf Hitler by photographer Heinrich Hoffman. On January 14, 2017, fascist agitators at UC Davis reenacted Pike's use of pepper spray against a mass of seated students, playing the roles of both Pike and the students. (Courtesy: Amanda Armstrong)

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

The above quote, from Marx’s “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” has become something of a cliché. Some variant of Marx’s tragedy/farce formula is dragged out whenever a commentator, usually of the Left, wants to remark on an apparent historical repetition that also reveals a historical decline. Brexit, for example, was variously described as a farcical repetition of the EU’s Greek tragedy; as a farce that lacked a tragic antecedent; as a tragic antecedent of Trump’s farcical campaign; and, in a reversal of Marx, as a farcical campaign that, in succeeding, became tragic.

While Hegel’s claim about historical repetition was itself repeated with a difference by Marx, the latter’s formulation has evidently become meme-ified. Memes operate according to a spatio-temporal logic other than that of simple repetition: memes proliferate, endlessly mutate, turn in on themselves. And, as last year’s “dat boi” meme has shown, memes do not require an origin. We might even say that memes most realize their essence when their origin has been forgotten, overwritten by an unending churn of doctored images. We thus see a meme most properly when, upon viewing a single doctored image, we recall other instances of the meme, rather than its origin as a discrete commercial or video (let alone an in-person [or “IRL“] event). A potential exception to this general rule of meme interpretation appears in the case of the pepper spray cop, who, despite endless peregrinations through the canon of Western art, never really sloughed off his association with the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) quad.

Which brings me to the video that occasioned the writing of this essay:

The above was recorded on January 14, 2017, a day after Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned talk at UC Davis had been shut down by mass protest. Yiannopoulos is an editor for the right-wing Breitbart News site, has referred to himself as a “fellow traveler” of the coalition of neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists that calls itself the “alt-right,” and is infamous for his campaigns of harassment against women and people of color on Twitter. The video depicts a reenactment of the pepper spray incident of November 18, 2011 — a reenactment that Yiannopoulos’ crew staged during their brief march across the UC Davis quad. The crew pretended to stand over a seated group of students and brutally douse them with pepper spray (they used silly string in place of the toxic aerosol), echoing what Lt. Pike of the UC Davis Police had done in 2011 against students who were protesting police violence and university privatization as part of the Occupy movement. Their cheesy staging of a notorious — and, notably, meme-ified — act of state violence seems to have provided some small compensation for a group disappointed to have been denied their fascist rally the night before.

In writing this essay, I’m trying to figure out what this group was doing when they reenacted the pepper spray incident. But I’m also interested in thinking more generally about the political moment through which we are living. What does this video tell us about the times we now inhabit?

Repetition and Reaction

I want to begin by returning to Hegel’s claim about historical repetition. While Marx couldn’t recall where exactly Hegel had discussed historical repetition, it turns out that the latter’s most explicit considerations of this phenomenon were encoded in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. In Part III of his Lectures, devoted to the history of ancient Rome, Hegel notes in regard to the assassination of Julius Caesar that Brutus and Cassius

believed that if this one individual were out of the way, the Republic would be ipso facto restored. Possessed by this remarkable hallucination, Brutus, a man of highly noble character, and Cassius, endowed with greater practical energy than Cicero, assassinated the man whose virtues they appreciated. But it became immediately manifest that only a single will could guide the Roman State, and now the Romans were compelled to adopt that opinion; since in all periods of the world a political revolution is sanctioned in men’s opinions, when it repeats itself. Thus Napoleon was twice defeated, and the Bourbons twice expelled. By repetition that which at first appeared merely a matter of chance and contingency becomes a real and ratified existence.

For Hegel, the repetition of consequential historical events is significant for what such repetitions do to the nature of reality: revolutions in the political order only become real insofar as their founding acts are repeated. Caesar appeared twice, Napoleon was twice defeated, etc. The repetition of the act retroactively casts the first iteration as something other than a happenstance occurrence. To be true to Hegel, and to travesty Marx, we might say: “All great world historical events occur, as it were, twice: the first time as contingency, the second as reality.”

There is, however, an interesting tension between Hegel’s use of the term “political revolution” [Staatsumwälzung], and the historical examples he provides to illustrate the role repetition plays in securing such revolutions. The ascent of Caesar, the expulsion of the Bourbon monarchy, and the defeat of Napoleon can only awkwardly be characterized as political revolutions. The first, in transforming a republic into an empire, was certainly politically significant, but in a way that would now be more likely to be characterized as reactionary. The latter two examples, pertaining to the sequence of the French Revolution, were rather more politically ambiguous. The expulsion of the Bourbon monarchy first occurred during the height of the French Revolution, in the early 1790s, and then again in 1815, at the dawn of the “Hundred Days” — a brief interlude of Napoleonic rule sandwiched between the Bourbon restoration of 1814 and the Bourbons’ subsequent return to power after Napoleon’s second defeat. Contra Hegel, the expulsion of the Bourbons most certainly did not become historically real upon having occurred a second time, something Hegel would have known when preparing his Lectures in the 1820s. Hegel’s examples of “political revolutions” thus appear to be anything but revolutionary; they were either temporary events (the expulsion of the Bourbons), reactionary transformations (the rise of the Roman Empire), or politically ambiguous defeats of ostensibly revolutionary regimes (Napoleon’s losses). Hegel’s examples thus suggest that his discussion of historical repetition should be read as offering, if anything, a formula for political reaction.

In his gloss on Hegel, Marx implicitly registers this association of historical repetition with reaction, insofar as he invokes Hegel in tracking Louis Napoleon’s ascent to the role of Emperor in mid-nineteenth-century France. For Marx, Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was a farcical repetition of his uncle’s tragic rule (the latter’s rule was tragic both because of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, but also because his rule involved the consolidation of the Thermidorian reaction of 1794, which marked the end of the most transformative phase of the French revolution).

While there are certainly some instances of historical repetition that are not associated with reaction, there is, I think, something in the form of historical repetition that makes it lean toward reaction. As Hegel helps us to see, repetition involves at once an overwriting of the initial act (the first act retroactively appears to ‘anticipate’ the second, rather than to have a more open relation to the future), and the extraction from this initial act of a surplus of reality or being (the second act appears somehow more ‘real’ insofar as it echoes the first). These Hegelian observations can help us understand, among other phenomena, the emergence of European fascism in the wake of the Russian revolution — perhaps the most consequential phase of reaction of the 20th century, to which the contemporary far right looks for guidance.

Reenacting the Pepper Spray Incident

he pepper spray cop is here inserted into Jacques-Louis David's 1793 La Mort de Marat(The Death of Marat). Painted in the months after the murder of the French revolutionary leader, David's La Mort de Marat was notable for the way it took an incident of contemporary politics as its subject. The painting, like Marat's death itself, anticipated the coming reactionary turn in the historical sequence of the French Revolution. (Courtesy: Amanda Armstrong)The pepper spray cop is here inserted into Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat). Painted in the months after the murder of the French revolutionary leader, David’s La Mort de Marat was notable for the way it took an incident of contemporary politics as its subject. The painting, like Marat’s death itself, anticipated the coming reactionary turn in the historical sequence of the French Revolution. (Courtesy: Amanda Armstrong)As Walter Benjamin remarked somewhere, “behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.” Benjamin’s aphorism suggests a historical process that links Left revolutions to eras of fascism, though the aphorism leaves open the nature of this process. Perhaps fascist movements tend to emerge in contexts of political crisis, where liberal democracy appears not to function — moments of crisis that also could have given rise to revolutionary movements. Perhaps fascist movements take shape as the leading edge of anti-communist reaction and then morph into effective movements: the paramilitary bands formed to repress mass strikes then become the core of fascist parties. Or perhaps fascist movements gain their force insofar as they provide a means to exorcise the specters of communism by repeating, with fundamental differences, certain features of communist insurrection. Such would be the view encoded in the observation that the flag-waving at the Nazis’ Nuremberg rallies reiterated the moment of flag-waving that had occurred 15 years earlier and 2,000 kilometers to the northeast, during the Russian Revolution of 1917, even as it also signaled the historical eclipse of that earlier episode. This final formulation perhaps brings us closest to Hegel, insofar as what is at stake in the fascist repetition of communist insurrection is a question of historical reality: is communism the bearer of the future, or simply a temporary diversion, a way-station on the road to the historically inevitable fascist state?

This final formulation also brings us back to last week’s video from the UC Davis quad. In reenacting the pepper spray incident, Yiannopoulos’ band replayed an iconic scene not only of police violence against Occupy protesters, but also, perhaps more significantly, of recent mass student protest in the US. The Davis students who linked arms on the quad in November 2011 were doing so in solidarity with Berkeley students who had recently held a mass strike to challenge police violence and university privatization. The violence enacted that day by Lt. Pike then galvanized Davis students, who held a mass strike of their own the following week. Large-scale confrontations between students and police at a Regents meeting in Riverside then followed a few weeks later. This sequence occurred in the midst of the broader occupy movement, which in Oakland had taken a particularly radical turn, with a city-wide general strike and a series of port shutdowns. While we may be embarrassed to say so now, many of us who lived through this sequence talked at the time in the language of social revolution, if only in qualified ways or in speculative registers. It felt for a moment like the social world had cracked open.

If we read last week’s reactionary reenactment of the pepper spray incident through the lens opened up by Benjamin and Hegel, we might say that Yiannopoulos’ gang implicitly recognized the revolutionary kernel of mass protests in California during the Fall of 2011, and that they came to Davis last week to rewrite, and to claim this (formerly?) revolutionary territory for the coalition of neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists that calls itself the “alt-right.” They wanted to found their movement by casting silly string on the very ground of Left student struggle. In reenacting Lt. Pike’s infamous violent act, they tried to insist that the subordination of Left students put on display in this act was the truth of the Davis quad, and more generally of the recent past and future of US universities. At one point in the video, the head of the gang — Lt. Pike’s lead re-enactor — says in his best frat boy voice: “You dirty hippies … ” calling back, as if also to exorcise, an earlier moment of mass student protest, when revolution also seemed to be in the air.

So, that is one way to read the reenactment. But, meme-like, the reenactment calls for a range of other readings, each only slightly related to the other:

* The reenactment shows the strong identification of the “alt-right” with the police — an identification that has to be understood in relation to the long history of anti-Black policing and surveillance in the US, which, in addition to its formal manifestations, has always involved the implicit or explicit deputizing of white civilian populations. The far right has taken shape as a reactionary backlash against the movement for Black lives — a backlash that takes the form of an identification with the cruelties daily enacted by the police, particularly upon Black populations.

* The reenactment puts on display the sadism latent in “alt-right” politics. The pleasure those white men with their red hats took in shooting silly string at their seated compatriots comes through quite clearly in the video. That some of their compatriots would be willing to take on the role of victimized students suggests the reversibility of the sadistic fantasy. Evidently, there is pleasure too in taking on the role of the violated, defenseless body of the Left student, the “hippy” served up as a canvas upon which those in one’s far-right band might inscribe their violent will.

* The reenactment was a compensation for the “alt-right” bros’ defeat the night before. If their staging of the pepper spray incident can be read as an attempt to overwrite and to exorcise the 2011 history of mass student protest, it can also be read as an effort to forget the effective student protest of the previous night. Staging an act of violence was thus the alt-right’s preferred mode of hangover treatment. Supporters of Yiannopoulos have evidently pursued other acts of retaliatory violence, most notably with the shooting of an anti-fascist protester outside Yiannopoulos’ event at the University of Washington, and with death threats posted to the event pages of protests against his scheduled talk at UC Berkeley on February 1.

* The reenactment says something about free speech, the preferred alibi of Yiannopoulos and his crew. Their insistence on claiming their right to free speech is, of course, a ruse, a way to confuse liberal commentators, and ultimately, let’s not mince words, a cover for spreading genocidal politics. In reenacting state violence against student protesters they make very clear how much they value students’ freedom of speech and bodily integrity (and remind us of how patchily such values have been upheld by the same campus administrators who now preach the doctrine of free speech über alles). Despite such displays of violence, Yiannopoulos’ gang apparently continues to fool some alums of the 1964-65 UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement (which expanded students’ right to organize on campus), who have come to treat freedom of speech as a religious imperative. In a recent editorial for The Daily Californian, these alums have nothing to say about Yiannopoulos’ misogynistic and anti-Black internet harassment campaign against Leslie Jones; or his grotesque verbal abuse of a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, suggesting that the editorialists have no way to critically parse protected speech from harassment. Their editorial clearly illustrates how free speech, if pursued at the expense of a broader project for social emancipation, simply ratifies and sanctifies existing hierarchies and mechanisms of power, which condition what is able to be said and done by whom and where. The demand for free speech only helps build democratic possibilities insofar as it is articulated with a broader push for social equality and emancipation (as, for example, in the IWW’s early 20th century campaigns for the right to give speeches in public, or in the Free Speech Movement itself, which gained its force through its association with the civil rights movement).

* The reenactment suggests the degree to which the “alt-right” is a monster peculiarly adapted to the age of memes. Its greatest accomplishment is surely the appropriation of the pepe meme. The movement has been recruiting its cadre from men’s rights and white nationalist subreddits. They listen to a podcast entitled the Daily Shoah. They’ve come up with anti-Semitic internet code, their own memetic ecosystem. Their preferred mode of operation is trolling. Now, as they are taking their show on the road and trying to get together “IRL,” one of their first acts is the reenacting of a particularly potent meme.

* But the reenactment, as much as it stirred the bile of those who were present for the police violence of 2011, did not work. It fell flat. It did so in part because it seemed, ironically, to reflect a misunderstanding of how memes move through time and space: if Yiannopoulos and his crew were trying definitively to exorcise the specters of student struggle through their reactionary act of repetition (a la Hegel and Benjamin), they failed. The pepper spray cop is not available for a simple, reactionary repetition: memes elude such reactionary capture, they refuse to gather their trails into a final, “real” iteration. The “alt-right” merely offered its own cheesy contribution to a still burgeoning pile of doctored pepper spray incidents. And the churning out of pepper spray memes hasn’t had much of an effect on the student organizing evident at the edges of the frame of the original pepper spray videos — organizing that has carried forward into the present and that made its force known in shutting Yiannopoulos’ fascist rally down the previous night.

Yiannopoulos and his boys thus seem to have miscalculated in trying to intervene in the heart of student radicalism (and at the origin point of the pepper spray meme). The students who daily traverse the meatspace of California’s campuses, who have faced down university police, who have battled against privatization, and who have carved out room for themselves on these often hostile campuses, were ready when the fascists showed up. At Davis, they refused to give an inch. At UC Berkeley, where Yiannopoulos is planning a talk on February 1, I would wager that such effective refusal will be repeated.

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