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“This Machine Bonks Fascists”: US Student Protester’s Water Jug Becomes Symbol of Resistance

“This Machine Bonks Fascists”: US Student Protester’s Water Jug Becomes Symbol of Resistance
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By Alaina Demopoulos, The Guardian

As college students across the US demand administrators divest from “Israel” and support Palestinian freedom, scenes of brutal arrests have spread across social media. But in recent days, a more playful meme has emerged: the water-cooler jug as an icon of resistance.

Last week, students at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, barricaded themselves inside of a campus building after police showed up to their protest in riot gear. The situation turned tense: while the students held the line against the police, who struck them with batons, one anonymous protester decided to fight back, bonking a cop on the helmet with a water jug that had originally been used as a drum.

Bonk, bonk, bonk quickly got the meme treatment. One Pro-Palestine activist group posted a mock-up on Instagram that showed Columbia students from its 1968 anti-war occupation handing a water jug to present-day Cal Poly Humboldt protesters. In Portland, activists knighted each other with empty water jugs.

Owen Carry, an associate editor at Know Your Meme, a website that documents online phenomena, said he’s seen catchphrases such as “jug of justice” and “bonk the police”. In one Photoshop edit, a designer changed a photo of Malcolm X looking out of his window while holding a machine gun to depict the civil rights icon holding a water jug. When Arizona State University turned lawn sprinklers on in an effort to disperse a pro-Palestinian protest, one student just placed a water jug over the faucet.

“Internet users are already taking notice of the replicated, real-life usage, calling it a ‘revolutionary icon’, further implying the likely lasting impact of the water jug,” Carry said.

Ryan Hutson, an independent journalist who covers the northern California region where Cal Poly Humboldt is located for outlets including the Redheaded Blackbelt, was inside the protest when the bonk took place. She says police tried to storm inside the building as Indigenous protesters were burning sage and other herbs to start a traditional prayer service. “Let us pray,” they chanted as the police moved in, ultimately leading to the water jug moment seen round the world.

“It’s such a regular, everyday object,” Hutson said. “I think it’s kind of emblematic of the student’s resolve. It’s the opposite of a weapon, it’s something that’s aligned with daily life, and drinking, the simplest of things going up against a very harsh and potentially violent force.”

Hutson added that it was jarring to see protesters use a water jug against cops’ more dangerous batons. Since the incident, she’s seen chalk messages that read “all cops are bonkable”, a play on the longstanding anti-police slogan “all cops are bastards”, as well as signs reading “this machine bonks fascists”, a joking reference to the message on the activist Woody Guthrie’s guitar, and “come and take it”, a historic slogan of defiance, next to water jugs on the public university’s campus.

The water jug isn’t the only arresting visual coming out of the nationwide campus protests: videos and photographs of students and faculty being violently arrested by cops have also gone viral. At Emory University, police slammed down and handcuffed a faculty member after she tried to protect a student. The University of Texas at Austin called in police and state troopers on horseback to disrupt student encampments and make arrests. In an echo of the 1968 occupation, Columbia University protesters took over the campus’s Hamilton Hall on Monday night, renaming it Hind Hall after Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl killed by gunfire in January.

Police were unable to breach the Cal Poly Humboldt students’ barricade for a week; the students occupied two buildings until early on Tuesday morning, when administrators announced the buildings had been secured by law enforcement and about 35 protesters had been arrested “without incident”. Administrators had closed the campus for the rest of the semester.

The water jug meme inspired Noshu, a rapper currently based in Mexico who writes anti-police lyrics, to put out The Bonk Song, a three-minute ode to the water jug and pro-Palestine student protesters. Sample lyrics include: “Oh yeah, and I know we gon’ win bro / ’Cause the holy water jug is a symbol / Very versatile if you know how to use it / first you bonk up a cop and then you go and quench your thirst.”

Noshu wrote the song after seeing “water jug art” take over his corner of social media. “We know that we can’t win against them by force, but we get creative,” he said. “Police don’t have creativity, they all show up in the same exact uniform, the same exact colors, with just a number identifying them. And we’re all these weird people being ourselves with water jugs. It just shows how different we are.”

Playfulness has long played a role in protest movements, helping frontline activists combat tension, burnout and disillusionment – from the students who danced at Tiananmen Square in 1989 before the military rolled in, to the Aids activists who unfurled a giant condom over a homophobic senator’s home in 1991.

Noshu cited an adage that’s often attributed to the anarchist Emma Goldman, but was really crafted by the 1970s anarchist printer Jack Frager: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” By writing The Bonk Song, Noshu said, “I want to show the importance of being able to laugh in the face of absurdity, tyranny and ridiculousness.”