Bringing Down the Imperial Walker, and Other Protest Signs

Jonathan Gray's picture

In case you don’t know, there’s been a whole lotta protestin’ goin’ on in Wisconsin. Saturday was day five for me. For more on what’s behind all this, see these posts here at Antenna.

Here, though, I want to discuss the many pop culture-related signs I’ve seen at the protests, with an eye towards then thinking through what we’re to make of them. To some, they might seem frivolous, a refusal to take the event and issue seriously, and hence no better than the doofuses holding up pro-pot signs at the rally. I disagree.

But first, the signs (and costumes):

Star Wars has been in plentiful supply. Scott Walker has quickly become “the Imperial Walker” to many, resulting in a good smathering of AT-AT (All Terrain Armored Transport) humor. “Stop the Imperial Walker” is the most common tagline, though the most brilliant two varieties of this I’ve seen are pictured at the top of this article, and also from a young man inside the Capitol entrance holding up his iPad, which was playing a looped scene from Empire Strikes Back of the rebels grounding an imperial walker. “The Rebels brought down walkers; so can we,” he chanted.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen signs of Han Solo with an “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” speech bubble.

One sign applauded, “The dark side is most pleased with you, Walker.”

And Admiral Akbar graced a few signs, warning, “It’s a trap.”

A more hopeful sign pleaded, “There’s still good in you (Sky)Walker” (though I must admit to seeing no Episode VI Final Act Anakin, and only Bad Acting Episode III Killin’ the Younglings Anakin from this Walker!).

Turning to Lord of the Rings, a few signs have invoked Gandalf’s directive to the Balrog:

Going further back, there was the “Turning Bedford Falls into Pottersville.”

A different Potter is invoked in proclaiming Walker to be Voldemort:

And alluding to an even older classic, Walker has been denounced as the new Sheriff of Nottingham in some posters.

“Time to Beam Up Scotty” and other variants are also to be found all over the place.

Eric Cartman demanded that Walker and the GOP “Respect My Authoritah.”

Meanwhile, Montgomery Burns has congratulated Walker on his economic policies in a few signs.

The Big Lebowski’s Dude has also drawn the line, letting us know Walker’s behavior won’t stand:

Captain America and Batman have both shown up, in costume, supporting both the rights of unions and the protesters’ grievances.

Peculiarly, even Jersey Shore got in on the act:

And last (and oddly least, given the frequency of the “Kill the Bill” chant), we’ve had The Bride from Kill Bill invoked to kill the bill

Elsewhere, Henry Jenkins has written on the political uses of fandom through protest, and how “popular culture can become a semiotic resource for political struggle.” The signs are catchy, like the images he shares of Spongebob or Aquaman dying in BP’s oil, and they can offer a quick message.

Here, for instance, the imperial walker can say a lot about Scott Walker at speed. It’s a slow clunky beast of a machine, but highly dangerous, designed to walk over things. It’s a wonderful symbol of The Empire as all technology and no humanity or life, a sort of bastardized, roboticized, grotesque pet. And so to say that Walker is an AT-AT is to say he’s all those things, and definitively the bad guy. Moreover, as the young man in the Capitol building’s chants reminded us, the Rebels brought them down. They were the David and Goliath story of 1980. Thus the parallel carries hope with it, that this rampaging beast called Scott might also be brought down. Interestingly, too, though the AT-AT is later found on Endor in Return of the Jedi, it’s most known for its use on Hoth, the ice planet, and thus there is a particularly strong resonance here in Madison as the long and cold winter seems perhaps to be winding down, inviting us to think that the utility of this Walker is over.

All of the Star Wars signs posit Walker as a denizen of the dark side, a Sith agent, just as they posit the protesters on the side of the rebels – as Akbar, as Han Solo, as Luke pleading to his father, and as the resistance on Hoth.

This obviously serves a motivational purpose, drawing from the emotional templates set up by Star Wars, and surely (for many) cemented in the school yard or other play spaces with toys, and encouraging protesters similarly to see themselves as involved in an important act of resistance. This is just one Walker, one trap, one thing that Han has a bad feeling about, so I’m also interested in how most of the signs posit a victory against Walker as only part of a greater victory. But they tap into a rich reservoir of emotion and motivation.

They also do so in a setting in which most protesters don’t know each other. Granted, many people turned up to these protests in groups, but once there, one finds oneself amidst a sea of people, most of whom one doesn’t know. Protests can get ugly of course, so as much as these have been remarkably peaceful and upbeat (contrary to the shameful, despicable lies perpetuated by Fox News), I’m sure everyone’s just a little on edge. In such an emotional space, the link of fandom can prove a helpful one, creating community and trust where none was there. For instance, I shared a warm, knowing glance with the guy with the iPad, and many others patted him on the back, laughed and shook his hand, or so forth. Seeing someone with such a sign assures one – rightly or wrongly – that the crowd isn’t just united by a desire to see the bill overthrown, but by something deeper, and in the moment of makeshift organization represented by a public protest, this can help calm protesters.

Indeed, a key thing these signs tend to do is keep people upbeat and happy. They’re funny, and so they elicit laughter. They’re playful, and so they encourage people to be at ease. Protests can be spaces of anger, and that anger walks a fine line of motivating on one hand, yet perhaps turning ugly on the other. So mechanisms are required to keep people motivated and impassioned, but also to pull them back from possible ugliness, to share a laugh together. Comic signs in general do this (two of my more favorite ones being those below), of course, and media-related signs are an important subset. While some see comedy as initiating cynical withdrawal, it’s in the space of the protest, with signs like this, that comedy’s abilities to inspire, replenish with energy, and keep one soldiering on are especially evident.

Many of the media signs involve considerable hyperbole (Walker as the ultimate evil), which is on one level another mainstay of many protest signs (witness the endless comparisons to Hitler that are all the rage in protest signmaking). But instead of simply scoffing at the hyperbole, we might realize that it represents an attempt to understand that which seems so non-understandable. Why, many would ask, won’t Scott Walker and his GOP senate simply sit down to talk? Why do they want unions gone? What kind of person would behave this way? Walker’s insistence on speaking of the protesters derisively, his absolute inability to compromise, and his calculated way of trying to rush a major union-busting piece of legislation through without discussion all elicit such questions. Politicians must carry some of the weight of responsibility for hyperbole used against them when they don’t even care what the public thinks of them. And so whether it’s a suggestion that he’s behaving like one of the spoiled brats experiencing ‘roid rage on Jersey Shore or that he’s a beast from Middle Earth, these pop culture analogies fill in the gaps that he and his behavior create. Just as Sarah Palin let Tina Fey author her public image when she refused to communicate with a broad public, so too do Walker or other politicians invite such analogies and authoring of their political meaning when they show disdain towards the idea that perhaps they should explain themselves. And so The Imperial Walker marches on.

Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Sun, 20 Feb 2011 22:48:00 +0000