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The actions of Extinction Rebellion Finland showcase new visual forms of politicisation
Images play an increasingly large role in social participation. Protests, demands and even entire processes of politicisation may take a purely visual form. In this text, we analyse paired photographs that went viral immediately after the civil disobedience actions of Extinction Rebellion Finland as a form of politicisation. Images are a powerful means of communication – indeed, it is revealing that the social commentary in Finland has revolved intensely around a handful of smartphone snapshots.
Eeva Luhtakallio and Taina Meriluoto
The text was originally published in Finnish on October 8, 2020 in the sociological online media Ilmiö.
The roadblock and civil disobedience actions of Extinction Rebellion Finland (Elokapina in Finnish) on 3 October 2020 ended in police use of force. Protesters sitting on the ground were pepper sprayed at close range by the police. Images of the young demonstrators sitting still on the tarmac and getting sprayed directly in the face by police officers spread like wildfire on both social and traditional media. The debate around the incident was sparked by the pictures; it revolved around their content, and opinions regarding the event were reflected against the imagery. However, in this case – as it often is in contemporary public discourse – the pictures are arguments in and of themselves: they are justifications, demonstrations and claims about what happened and why, and what it should lead to.
“This is what democracy looks like” is a well-known rallying cry from protests decades back. In recent years, it has gained new meanings. Images play an increasingly large role in social participation. On one hand, pictures from party politics as well as civil activity events reach wide audiences through social media channels. On the other hand, in the current situation, the pictures themselves create both online and live social movements, which renders the events political. In other words, images politicise. Protests, demands, arguments and even entire processes of politicisation may take a purely visual form. This has an inevitable impact on the ways in which matters become political, on the forms of public influence and discourse and, eventually, on the shape of democracy.
Research on the public sphere and democracy has relied heavily on written and verbal material: on arguments and verbal debates, claims and justifications. Research on the impact of the visualisation of political action, however, is only in its early stages.
In a world of deepening inequality, the question of whose voice is heard, and how, becomes increasingly central. Wishes and claims pertaining to democracy change and evolve in time. Demands mould existing practices and policies; at times, they lead to entirely new fields of activity. During the last decade, the crisis of representative democracy has produced a wide spectrum of practices for participatory democracy. The visualisation of the public discourse is one of the ongoing changes in current practices. How does it alter democracy and the public debate? We address this question by analysing the public debate regarding the Extinction Rebellion Finland demonstration and the ensuing police use of force. We look at the visualisation of police brutality and the use of paired images as an argument.
Police brutality, images and body language
Pictures depicting police officers using pepper spray are not merely a demonstration of an overreaction in police field operations. They also reveal a number of aspects that the National Police Board will never be required to comment on and that no court will ever deliberate. In addition to the apparent content, the meanings that the images convey may have the most powerful impact on the audience, in part without the observers themselves even realising.
The pictures expose the body language of the police officers and the activists. The latter are sitting or kneeling, some are bowing their heads. The police officers look like they are punishing. At that moment in time, the bodies of the police officers are not serving societal peace or street safety. They are conveying adrenaline rush, violence and the desire to punish. In the minds of some observers, they allude to a desirable regime of discipline and control.
Reactions to the pictures of the incident are split: some commentators strongly condemn the actions of the police and express their shock at what they are witnessing, others defend the actions of the police and criticise the activists for their disobedience. Some have even been prompted to engage in downright violent fantasies. These reactions illustrate a dimension pertaining to the power of images. As observers view the pictures, they understand the event content of the images (probably in more or less the same way), but at the same time, they also interpret the images by reflecting them against learned modes of interpretation. Depending on individual experiences or the collective understanding of one’s peer group, these interpretations vary from empathy to shock, and to aggressive excitement.
Pictures of the passive activists have also been interpreted as a demonstration of their strategic action. The fact that the activists do not attempt to shield their faces has been regarded as evidence that the excessive use of force by the police and precisely this kind of subsequent imagery was the ultimate purpose of the demonstration. These types of assessments disregard the notion that pictures take their own situational course. Capturing a specific kind of picture of a rapidly evolving situation is something all photographers dream about, but rarely manage to execute. The activists had no prior knowledge of how events would unfold, and whatever was planned in advance is trivial in terms of the end result. As the examples below illustrate, the activists had no prior experience of the intensity of the police use of force.
Instead, documentation from the event ties the Extinction Rebellion Finland demonstration to a long and global chains of events. Some of these are climate movement events, others involve other forms of mobilisation. Nonetheless, a common feature is their visual characteristics. The Black Lives Matter movement has created similar imageries of police brutality, from the Ferguson protests to the death of George Floyd. However, BLM is a particular case in that police brutality is precisely the starting point and core of the movement, not a side story. In contemporary public discourse, such chains of events are undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools that disempowered groups can use for politicising an experienced injustice or shared cause.
Paired images are a particular form of politicisation
In social media, the use of paired images was particularly emphasised in commentaries on the roadblock organised by Extinction Rebellion Finland. They were used to produce comparisons with similar events both nationally and internationally.
Similar images emphasise the gravity of the situation
According to news reports, the police saw that the Extinction Rebellion Finland demonstration was starting to ‘escalate’ around 4 p.m. Already by 5 p.m., photographs of the pepper-spraying police officers were going viral on social media, and so was a pair of images that drew parallels between the event in Kaisaniemi, Helsinki, with police brutality at the 2012 Occupy movement demonstration at the University of California, Davis. Similarities between the images are not hard to see: both depict police officers seemingly casually pepper spraying (young) activists who are sitting still and bowing their heads down. The image pair was shared with captions and hashtags that emphasised precisely the similarities of the incidents; commentators noted they ‘shared the same energy’ or were ‘like two peas in a pod’.
By showcasing the similarity, the image pair effectively emphasised the gravity of the Kaisaniemi incident. By demonstrating an almost identical setting, the image pair linked the local event to the global and highly topical issue of police brutality. The paired images rendered verbal justifications or demonstrations of the connection to the wider phenomenon unnecessary; their settings and elements are so similar that they are undeniably positioned as being part of the same phenomenon.
In other words, the image pair politicises, first and foremost, by emphasising the broader social and global meaning of the incident. It is hence not about a singular case or isolated events, but a broad social problem that requires immediate solutions. The image pair gained additional power from the knowledge that the incident in the United States, well known for immensely more notorious records of severe police violence than Finland, had nonetheless led at least to some form of repercussions for the police, as several commentators also pointed out.
Image pairs highlighting difference raise the question of unfairness
The other image pair related to the incident compares the Extinction Rebellion Finland demonstration and the demonstration by the far-right Nordic Resistance Movement that was held at Tampere around the same time. In this juxtaposition, the argument is based on the difference between the images: whereas the picture from the Extinction Rebellion Finland demonstration depicts a police officer pepper spraying an activist in the face, the picture from Tampere shows no police presence whatsoever. The captions for the image pair further emphasise the differences. Extinction Rebellion Finland is described as a ‘legal demonstration’, whereas the photograph from Tampere depicts ‘a demonstration by an illegal neo-Nazi organisation’.
This image pair presents its argumentation by highlighting unfairness. Two almost simultaneous demonstrations appear to be treated completely differently. The question of unfairness is further stressed by the starkly different premises in terms of legality as well as moral stance: one image depicts people defending humanity against extinction, the other portrays the advocacy of racism and a criminalised ideology. Juxtaposing the absence of the police against the active use of force by the police awakens a sense of injustice in the observer. The image pair also comments on the claim that the political preference of police officers has a strong effect on their actions in regard to different protesters. The issue is politicised by appealing to shared values and principles: since the images are not alike, essential criteria for fair treatment are not met.
Images of different police actions question their inevitability
The third politicising image pair – or, more precisely, video pair – contrasts the actions of the police with a similar situation in August. The Extinction Rebellion Finland demonstration in August involved a roadblock of Mannerheimintie, a main street with much heavier traffic than the smaller Kaisaniemenkatu street during the October demonstration. In the videos, the demonstrations appear very similar: both depict activists sitting cross-legged in the middle of the street. The paired images, however, show the differences in police reactions, including body language: in contrast to the pepper-spraying police officers in October, in August, the police officers ask the protesters about their ‘preferred way’ to be carried away.
The arguments of this image pair are simultaneously based on notions of similarity and difference. It shows how the setting was very similar in August. Just as indisputably, it showcases how differently the police reacted in the two situations. The diverging action prompts the observer to question why the police did not follow its own previous course of action.
This image pair politicises by ‘disrupting the normal’. By showcasing how the police previously acted differently in a similar setting, it demonstrates that the chosen actions in October were neither unavoidable nor the only perceivable option. It breaks the assumption of the inevitability of things by pointing at relevant and existing alternatives. The imagery also calls the viewer to speculate on the role of individual police officers, on problems within the operational organisation of the police, perhaps also on threat scenarios involving behind-the-scenes decisions to clamp down on demonstrations. These are stirring and perplexing ideas for which the images do not provide clear answers. However, the image pair raises doubts, which probably makes it just as efficient, in its own way, as the other two visual juxtapositions.
“Will this become a meme, too?” – what remains of the images?
The viral spread of the images and image pairs brought about unprecedented visibility for Extinction Rebellion Finland, on both social and traditional media. Amidst the flood of images, several prominent social commentators noted that now they at least were aware of the movement. Indeed, what kind of picture (!) the widely shared images draw of Extinction Rebellion Finland is an interesting question of its own. What kinds of traces do the images leave?
On Sunday, the day after the event, Extinction Rebellion Finland immediately started to actively redirect the attention gained from police brutality to the climate crisis. This was done, for instance, by creating a strong link between police brutality and inadequate climate actions. In a news article in Helsingin Sanomat on 6 October, Extinction Rebellion Finland activist Elina Kauppinen ties the phenomena together by concluding: “The same social system that is producing the ecological and climate crisis also produces police brutality.”
By framing police brutality and the climate crisis as different manifestations of the same problem, the Extinction Rebellion activists strive to transform the imagery of pepper-spraying police officers into a symbol of the climate emergency as well. In this symbolic setting, the distress of the activists equally represents their despair about the deficiency of government climate actions. Respectively, the pepper-spraying police officer not only symbolises police brutality, but also public power disregarding the climate emergency.
However, speed and lack of control is characteristic of visual politicisation. Neither Extinction Rebellion Finland nor any other individual actor retains control over the images and image pairs that are spreading on social media, and images can be used to communicate and argue various things in various ways. The widely shared image pair of UC Davis and Kaisaniemi, in particular, immediately generated comments about its meme potential. Discussants on social media hence speculated that the images might reappear later with various new captions – argumentatively, jokingly or mockingly, as a part of conversations that may or may not be related to Extinction Rebellion Finland, civil disobedience, police brutality or the climate crisis.
It remains to be seen whether the imagery from the event ends up as a ‘Hitler finds out about the pepper-spraying Helsinki police’ meme and what other memetic universes Extinction Rebellion Finland will be taken to. From the perspective of the practices of public discourse and democracy, it is remarkable that the social commentary in Finland has revolved intensely around a handful of smartphone snapshots. Everyone is prompted to comment on these images, be it the Minister of Interior on the current affairs programme on prime time national broadcasting, legal scholars on Twitter, or Facebook commentators quarrelling in defence of different parties in the incident. The images can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, but if they have to be acknowledged as a truthful depiction of the event, as is the case here, nobody participating in the debate can deny or avoid the images. They are front and centre in the debate and will not wear off easily.
Images are no longer a side issue in politics, but increasingly at the very core. It is therefore important to take note of their political weight and to acknowledge that they are transforming the rules and toolkit of the public debate, and to strive to understand the consequences this will have for public argumentation and the justifications for various moral judgements – and, ultimately, for the practices of democracy.
The images are screen grabs from Twitter, and they are used in this text with the permission of the creators of the image pairs.
This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 804024).
Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.