From Pepper Spray Cop to Karen, the activist meme


With the “Karen”, the “neurchi”* on labour liberalisation and the Twitter accounts of “leftist” humour, the meme becomes an activist. Decryption.  

*According to Masters of Media, neurchi is a French vernacular expression combining “neurochirugien” and “chineur” (meaning respectively neurosurgeon and bargain hunter). It designates a Facebook group in which users congregate to share memes around a particular topic. Original content is very appreciated and since their inception they have become the driver of France’s meme industry. 

It’s the story of a meme. Do you know it? It’s the story of a meme, which begins as a photo of police brutality, diverts and mutates, evolves into Karen, and in the process serves as a thinly veiled tool of activism. All this in almost 10 years of Internet. In other words, an eternity…

On November 18, 2011, on the forecourt of the University of California Davis, the Occupy movement is two months old and a group of students are demonstrating on campus. Sitting on the ground, a few dozen students protest against the arrest of their comrades by forming a peaceful human chain. A policeman, wearing a helmet and a heavy leather belt with pockets screwed at the waist, approaches, brandishes his can of tear gas and sprays the rebellious, as copiously as he does nonchalantly. The gas is a dark orange. Around him, the demonstrators chant “Shame on you”. Some observers are filming, others are taking photos. 

The next day, a photo of the incident is posted on the Reddit forum. Soon this anonymous policeman will have a name – Lieutenant Pike – and a meme: “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop”. 

Screenshot from Reddit

Taxonomy of the meme 

For the uninitiated, let’s lay the groundwork. An Internet meme is “any information, hyperlink, media or behaviour that passes from one Internet user to another and evolves as it spreads”, defines Don Caldwell, editor of the encyclopaedia of memes Know Your Meme (KYM), whom we interviewed. Inspired in its original definition in biology, the meme, conceptualized by evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, evolves and mutates like genes. 

In the taxonomy of memes, with scientific rigour under the impetus of the KYM team, Pepper Spray Cop is a “photoshop meme”. Thus, with retouching and editing software, Internet users have fun placing the lieutenant in ever more outrageous situations. Here, the policeman attacks Bambi, kittens or the brave Winnie the Pooh, there, it’s the Beatles, Jesus or a crying Sponge Bob. Even more grandiloquent, we find him gassing the icons of the United States on Mount Rushmore, the authors of the American constitution or the little girl in Napalm on one of the most famous photos of the Vietnam War.

So much for the main strain. The meme also has some more or less popular variations, Don Caldwell explains. Video parodies (such as this one with the template of Hitler’s video), consumer comments on the Amazon page of the tear gas used by Lieutenant Pike, or the meme classified as a “macro image” – a variable text attached to a still image – of the Fox presenter arguing that the gas is “essentially a food product”. The euphemistic comparison gives rise to a plethora of diversions. 

Other Occupy-era police officers came close to becoming unwilling heroes of the meme community. One thinks of the Hipster Cop, whose swag did not leave Internet users indifferent, or the (very) Angry NYPD Cop. Supporting roles that lack a key element: the potential of a visual style figure. 

Antonomasia, metonymy and the importance of the archetype

In her research paper on the use of the “Pepper Spraying Cop” meme as a tool for social justice and public humiliation (2018), Natalia Mielczarek, assistant professor at Virginia Tech, recalls that before being a meme, the image was a photo. “Two days after the photo made its public debut, the renowned journalist and media critic James Fallows links its significance to photographs of the Civil Rights Movement that immortalised law enforcement forces using high-pressure water cannons on demonstrators,” she writes.

“Such images,” writes Fallow in reference to UC Davies’ photography, “can have tremendous long-term effects”. In the pre-Internet era, such an image would have been picked up by newspapers, history books, re-released for anniversaries of events. The meme, for its part, acquires immediate iconic status. “By definition, the meme multiplies, expands, mutates”, analyses Mielczarek for CTRLZ. Above all, this time the propagation of the image is participatory. 

The strength of the meme is therefore in its evocative power, its reference to “the familiar cultural narrative of power struggle”. Unwittingly, Lieutenant Pike has become a “metonymy of the systemic abuse of power”, writes Natalia Mielczarek, a single word – here visual – for an idea:

“His riot gear and equipment as a visual metonym for the system, a system that punishes disobedience and exercises power, dominance and control over those who transgress it. In other words, Pike has become the embodiment of – and a rhetorical shortcut for – a repressive state that penalizes its members for exercising their constitutional right to protest”

In his essay on the relationship between memes, emotion and infotainment, the journalist Vincent Bilem talks about antonomasia, a type of metonymy by which one makes a proper name become a common name (and vice versa). Thus, for example, Alain Finkielkraut’s “Taisez-vous !” has become the antonomasia of anger, he thinks. 

Vendetta IRL

The direct heir to the Pepper Spray Cop, Karen, who first became popular as BBQ Becky, a white woman “famous” for calling the police in an attempt to arrest a group of African-Americans barbecuing in an Oakland park. Having become a photoshop meme, she is placed, phone to her ear, in front of Martin Luther King and his audience, Rosa Park or Barack Obama.

BBQ Becky returns as Central Park Karen in 2020, the white woman who called the police after an African-American bird-watching walker asked her to keep her dog on a leash, claiming she was threatened by the man who (calmly) filmed her.

On Know Your Meme, an entire subsection is dedicated to Caucasian people calling the police to threaten their African American co-citizens.

Pepper Spray Cop and Karen share this symbolism of systemic abuse of power. They also share a porous border between fame and public humiliation, cathartic humor and revenge.

Offenders are identified, and often their employers are set upon. Central Park Karen was quickly laid off and then fired and her dog, which she holds very firmly in the video, was temporarily returned to the shelter where she had adopted it.

Lieutenant Pike received 17,000 emails, 10,000 text messages and hundreds of letters, according to the complaint against UC Davis. He was fired and moved several times as a result of the events. In 2016, he received $38,000 (almost €31,000) in compensation for his “serious psychiatric damages” from the university. The peppered students received $30,000 each (about €24,400) and the university spent $175,000 to clean up its online reputation (€142,000). 

Activists despite themselves

In an article published in late December on how the Karen meme has changed the way Americans talk about racism, journalist Julia Carrie Wong analyzes:

“What I’ve found especially useful about Karen memes is the way they’ve given willing white women a tool with which to assess their own behavior and, if they want, improve it”.

An education under the guise of humour that can be found in meme groups (the Neurchis) such as the “telework market flexibilisation neurchis”. Inspired by the “STIFO neurchi (Soutien Total et Inconditionnel aux Forces de l’Ordre = total and unconditional support for law enforcement)”, which disseminates police brutality by feigning unfailing support, the “flex neurchi” offers a caustic criticism of the labour market and its inexorable liberalisation. To embody this power relationship, the Neurchi features two characters introduced to us by the co-founder of the Paul Ricard group: There is the Fabieng, the boss (note: adding ‘-ieng or-ing’ to names makes them caricatures sounding accented as if they were from the ‘relaxed’ South of France): “He can be a toxic start-up CEO or a mega-bitchy traditional boss. In any case, he exploits you”. And the Corenting, “the trainee or the employee who goes flex“. Newcomer: Dave, the developer, an untouchable employee who hasn’t experienced the crisis.

Neurchi de flex therefore has a political impact – at the last IRL meeting, Manon Aubry, from France Insoumise, was also present, reports Paul Ricard. But the group is neither a propaganda tool, nor does it have an assumed activist character. “I would feel pretentious to call myself an activist. I just edit and post on the Internet”. For an audience of 119,000 people, however….

Internet voters

A difference between real and virtual terrain that @LeftAccidental, a Twitter account with 284,200 followers, also adopts, listing “accidentally leftist” discourse.

Its owner, a man in his twenties who prefers to remain anonymous, is also the creator of the Conservatives Getting Owned and Dank Left political memes accounts. He has also been a grassroots activist for several years. He admits to CTRLZ: “It’s very different to be out in the field, making phone calls, going door to door. It’s much harder work ”.

While he does not consider his Twitter accounts to be activism in the strict sense, he acknowledges that their scope and reach is probably greater:

I reach a few hundred million people every 28 days. It would take me more than a lifetime of activism to reach that number of people (…) It reaches a lot of people who are not political. It’s a more accessible tool to introduce people to politics and make them think more.

An effective tool to make the left more attractive to the Internet community, too:

“In 2015, memes were in the hands of the conservatives. In recent years, the left has regained the upper hand. The internet is a battleground: every year, millions of people go online for the first time. We want to be the cool side, the one these people want to join ”.

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