Symposium

Of snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish play at the Wisconsin protests

Jonathan Gray

University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Fannish signs provide a sense of community, morale, levity, and hope during protests.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan activism; Politics

Gray, Jonathan. 2012. "Of Snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish Play at the Wisconsin Protests." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2012.0353.

1. The battle on Hoth

[1.1] On Friday, February 11, 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced the Budget Repair Bill, a measure supposedly designed "to balance the state budget and give government the tools to manage during economic crisis" (http://www.wisgov.state.wi.us/journal_media_detail.asp?locid=177&prid=5622), but that proposed to do so by forcing state workers to pay for a greater percentage of their benefits, and by virtually eliminating public unions. The latter would be allowed to bargain for wages, tied to inflation rates, but otherwise would be rendered ineffective. In a state that has often modeled labor law for the rest of the nation, with a strong union history, this union-busting bill incensed many. The next few weeks therefore saw protests day after day at the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in Madison, with crowds peaking at almost 100,000, and with many coming out in the snow, rain, and cold while Democratic senators camped out in Illinois to deny the Wisconsin Republicans the necessary numbers to establish a quorum to vote on the bill.

[1.2] As I joined one of these protests and filed into the Capitol, whose rotunda and other public areas had been peacefully occupied, a young man stood by the entrance holding an iPad above his head. The screen played a looped sequence from The Empire Strikes Back in which a Rebel Alliance snowspeeder attaches a cable to a huge lumbering AT-AT (All Terrain Armored Transport) Imperial Walker on the snow planet of Hoth. The speeder then winds the cable around the walker until the doglike machine is crippled, unable to walk, and collapses. The man in the Capitol chanted, "The Rebels brought down Walkers. So can we!" As hundreds of protesters filed past him, many chuckled, applauded him, shook his hand, and/or joined in his chant before joining the protesters demanding that state representatives locked behind closed doors listen to them.

[1.3] The young man's creative use of an iPad was impressive, but his act of seeing the events of the week through popular culture glasses was by no means unique. "Imperial Walker" references became commonplace, with two protesters even dressing up as an AT-AT (figure 1). Other Star Wars protest signs saw Admiral Akbar warning "It's a Trap!", depicted Han Solo worrying, "I've got a bad feeling about this" (figure 2), and pleaded to the governor that "There's still good in you (Sky)Walker." Shifting franchises to The Lord of the Rings, several posters invoked Gandalf's enraged words to the Balrog, saying "This bill shall not pass!" (figure 3). Harry Potter–inspired signs suggested that Walker was Voldemort and that school librarians were Harry (figure 4). The Big Lebowski's The Dude cried out from signs that "This aggression will not stand, man!" (figure 5), South Park's Eric Cartman instructed Walker to "Respect Our Authoritah" (figure 6), a "Jersey Shore for Union Rights" sign announced that "Scott Walker is a grenade," slightly doctored Kill Bill posters now noted "Kill the Bill," protesters dressed as Batman and Captain America urged that we purge the GOP and Walker from the country, a sign with The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns congratulated Walker for his evil brilliance, Walker was compared to the Sheriff of Nottingham on yet another sign, and folksy It's a Wonderful Life was invoked to suggest that the bill was "Turning Bedford Falls into Pottersville." Such signs were by no means the only signs, as indeed a vibrant collection of sentiments from many walks of life could be seen. Nor were they the most common. But, as with the young man with the iPad, they and their creators often elicited friendly chatter, laughs, cheers, and compliments.

Figures 1–6. Various fan-related protest posters (and costume) seen at the Madison Capitol Square protests, February 2011 [Click on the above images to view larger versions.]

2. Fannish knowledge, play, and politics

[2.1] Here I want to examine the role that fandom and popular culture played in the Wisconsin protests. In particular, I want to argue for these signs, and for the uses of fandom within the realm of the political, as morale and community builders of an impressive order. While critics might see the signs as a failure to take the events seriously, as yet another instance of entertainment getting in the way of Important Work To Be Done, I saw ample evidence of the above signs and invocations of popular culture as contributing to said Important Work.

[2.2] I start with the observation that these signs aided camaraderie. Protesters came from a wide range of backgrounds, as Madison's Capitol Square filled with local teachers, graduate students, senior citizens, firefighters, snowplow drivers, high school students, professors, undergraduates from around the state and country, steelworkers, and many, many more, including a wide swath of concerned citizens of Madison. But how do such individuals and such distinct communities come together and work together toward a common goal? How do they create a communal understanding of what is going on and of their role in this? On the one hand, such questions point to the brilliant organization and marshaling performed by the Teaching Assistants' Association that played such a key role in the protests. We can also look to patterned group behaviors—many people carried similar signs, handed out by unions (including, for instance, "Stop the Attack on Wisconsin Families"), thereby signaling something in common. Standard protest chants ("Hey hey, ho ho, Scott Walker has got to go," "Show me what democracy looks like," etc.) similarly brought protesters together. Civic and state pride was instrumental, too, as many showed up in their Wisconsin red and/or sported signs asking "What would Bucky [the university mascot] do?" But on top of this, the fannish signs played their part in strengthening connections. Many signs only required a passing knowledge of the texts in question, but they also invited a deeper connection between fans. In a crowd of people, many of whom are unknown, and when the news media has proven so invested in portraying protests anywhere as "riots" in a way that might cause many protesters to be on edge and slightly fearful of their fellow protesters, the fannish connection allowed for a dispelling of such fear.

[2.3] The Imperial Walker signs and invocations are especially evocative. Such signs were being wielded, after all, in the middle of a characteristically long Wisconsin winter; when the Capitol Square was covered in snow, it seemed distinctly Hothlike. Because AT-ATs are notable for looking like grotesque, oversized mechanical dogs, likening one to Walker conveyed him as being a robot for special interests. The Walkers are shown to be destructible, and they appear in the Star Wars trilogy when the Empire is in control and the Rebels are on the run; yet fans know that the Rebels will ultimately win out, that the Empire is doomed to failure. Even Admiral Akbar's warning, "It's a trap!," is similarly framed by fannish knowledge: the Rebels still destroy the Death Star and the Empire along with it. Meanwhile, Han may have "a bad feeling about this," but we know him to survive and to be ready for all comers. The Star Wars signs thereby offered a shared frame for understanding the events and the protesters' place in them, one that was all the more necessary given the national news media's early inept reporting on the protests. Granted, this understanding involved no small measure of hyberbole, but the signs nevertheless used a fannish bond and knowledge to help give purpose to some.

[2.4] That hyperbole, however, also helped steel protesters for the long haul. With weather often hostile to protesters, the Republicans closing ranks and making it hard to see a path of victory ahead, and protests seeming like they would need to continue for a long time, investment strategies were required to make protesters feel the need to return and to keep up the fight. To this end, all of the Star Wars signs framed the protests in larger cosmological terms, calling for the protesters to stick around for Episode VI and the celebratory ending. So too did the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings signs invoke grand and grueling battles of good versus evil. They referenced a battle that would be neither quick nor easy, but would reward continued investment, and that was absolutely vital. In doing so, they aimed to build morale for the long term rather than peg it to short-term, quick-fix goals. I am under no deluded misunderstanding that the protesters honestly believed they were Dumbledore's Army, the Fellowship of the Ring, or the Red Team in the Death Star trenches, but even a small, heavily discounted portion of the emotion summoned by a call to arms by Harry, Gandalf, or Mon Mothma might have been the gentle push many needed to come out the next day or next weekend.

[2.5] Moreover, the signs were amusing. They often inspired laughs and cheers. They were not alone in this respect, as other comic signs abounded (as, for example, with one sign that implored "Walker, be more like Palin: Quit"), but they contributed to making the protests as friendly as they were driven. Protesters were angry, after all, and many were facing poverty, a loss of benefits, and the theft of their rights. Fox News' reports of "riots" and "union hate rallies" by "union thugs" (http://nation.foxnews.com/politics/2011/02/17/union-hate-rally-wisconsin-protests-rife-hitler-gun-targets-death-threats) were nonsense and shameless lies; they did rely, though, on images of actual signs and on audio of actual chants by a radical minority of extremely angry protesters. As the protests continued and as they drew national media attention, for many protesters, and for the organizers especially, it became important to ensure that the protests remained peaceful and upbeat, countering Fox News' images. The fannish signs aided this mission, offering reasons to smile and laugh amidst the anger and angst, and often inspiring discussions between fellow fans.

3. Conclusion: Rallying around the rebels

[3.1] "Fan activism" may usually bring to mind images of the Harry Potter Alliance and of other fan communities that come together through their fandom and then enter the realm of politics as a close-knit community. However, at the Wisconsin protests, we saw another type of fan activism, in which fandom was performed and announced as a way to foster community among both fans and a broader public when politics was already on the scene. The political utility of this second form of fan activism stems from the fact that many of the utopian messages and scripts on offer by fan objects (the democractic, liberatory zeal of the Rebel Alliance, Harry Potter's embrace of difference, Lord of the Rings's bold objection to tyranny) reach a significantly wider community of those who may regard themselves as fans of a sort, even if fan studies literature has often required a greater level of participation in the fan object to count as a full-fledged member of "fandom." If a fan activist's task is to use fandom and its shared commitments to such utopian visions to affect change in the political world, in some cases this task may be achieved by sharing the fan object with that broader community of fanlike individuals. In Wisconsin, while fans may have been the ones wearing the costumes and holding the signs, they offered those around them who were in the know a virtual costume to wear over their actions, as well as a fleeting moment of shared ground and togetherness in the anonymity of a large protest.

[3.2] I do not wish to overstate the importance of these signs here, as other forces and individuals deserve far more credit for crowd mobilization and organization at the protests in Wisconsin. The fans were hardly the Jedi masters in this battle, and should the protesters have succeeded in their cause, I would be no more inclined to credit the victory to fans than I am inclined to blame them for the eventual passage of Governor Scott Walker's bill. But just because Star Wars was not the horse pulling the political cart here, we would be wise not to underestimate the importance of morale and community building within any political project. As much as journalists often fetishize elections, polls, and events as sites for politics, what gets us to elections and events in the first place, what keeps us there, what allows us to make sense of them, and what encourages us to keep coming back—those are what truly make politics happen. Fannish signs and play can build that morale and strengthen those communities, and in that respect, they may occasionally prove as useful for bringing down Imperial Walkers as a well-placed light saber or snowspeeder cable.





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