"Permit Patty," "BBQ Becky," and the Rise of Activist Memes

The memes won't last long, but that's not the point.


Alison Ettel, whether or not she intended it, has been immortalized in meme form as Permit Patty. Ettel is just the latest in a string of white people who went viral for calling the cops on black people for innocuous activities, but her story highlights how memes are now being used as an activist tool.

Ettel rose to infamy earlier this month for seemingly calling the police on 8-year-old Jordan Rodgers for selling bottles of water without a permit. A video of the incident was shot by Erin Austin, the girl’s mother, and Jordan’s older cousin later uploaded it to Twitter with the hashtag #PermitPatty. The now-viral hashtag was directly invoking BBQ Becky, a pejorative given to another white woman who called the police on black men who were grilling in a park in Oakland.

Of course, incidents like this are nothing new. White people called the cops on black people for having the audacity to hang out at Starbucks or sleep, and it’s only been getting worse as more white people move into historically ethnic neighborhoods. In one such example, a white woman who recently moved to Harlem tried to get rid of an ice cream truck that none of her black neighbors ever had a problem with.

But BBQ Becky and Permit Patty were notable because they were turned into memes, ensuring that they gained way more traction than the other incidents.

Memes Have Been Used for More Than Just Jokes Before

Memes are easy to share because they’re simple, easy to digest, and malleable. The bar for participation is low and anyone can go viral. A meme is like an inside joke: being in on it is part of the appeal.

The most viral form of a meme is a picture. In the early days of Reddit, many subreddits that ostensibly existed for discussion were being ruined by pictures and memes. /r/Games was created as a split from /r/Gaming because most of the content on /r/Gaming was memes and not actual video game discussion. Even today, virtually all the top posts on Reddit’s homepage are pictures and gifs.

Why does this always happen to me?

mystic duck, Know Your Meme

With the arrival of memes such as Confession Bear, people realized that memes were also a great way to spread ideas. Unfortunately, one of the first groups to understand this was the alt-right, which has used memes to spread its ideology under the guise of parody and just troll the shit out of people.

However, BBQ Becky and Permit Patty are perhaps the first examples of memes that shed a light on how police are often used as state-sponsored bludgeons against people of color.

What Will Come Next?

Memes don’t leave a whole lot of room for discussion, and that’s fine. They aren’t meant to. Permit Patty told her side of the story, claiming Austin and Rodgers were shouting and she wasn’t actually calling the cops. Apparently, that’s justification enough to threaten an 8-year-old girl with police.

It’s true that as memes become more ubiquitous, the lifespan of the average meme is growing shorter. Meme-based businesses (yes, this is a thing) are struggling to keep up as mass overuse continues to kill some memes in a matter of days.

But even if all the memes from this emerging trend of internet activism are doomed to be short-lived, they still are because memes are ultimately about a shared experience. The reason why so many people resonated with memes like BBQ Becky and Permit Patty is that they touched upon an experience deeply familiar to many people of color.

And for once, we were in on the joke.