Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent

HqVO6dGlVirginia Hotchkiss at nonsite:

The most preferable time to do an action is either first thing in the morning when participants can stand in the street long enough to block rush hour traffic, which ups the chances of arrest and news coverage, or at 11am after the press have concluded their morning staff meetings and are ready to head out of the office. Weekend actions make it possible to draw more participants, but make it more difficult to draw the media. These are generally the key concerns around which we plan a demonstration.

The politics that inform these actions, where not entirely opaque, are based on a semi-spiritual belief that the right recipe of symbolism, passion, and powerful visuals will inspire significant political action that will alter the course of this or that unjust policy or state of affairs. Organizers want to inspire the people who view their protest images on their phones. To this end, they reach for clichéd tropes of earlier social movements to galvanize the imagination of onlookers. They sing the familiar songs, sometimes with their own lyrics added in, and steel themselves in the unimpeachable credentials of social justice saints of yore. In one characteristic overreach, an organizer told a crowd that they were the “Harriet Tubmans” of the environmental movement, freeing people from the slavery of fossil fuels. Historical inspiration belongs in these fights, but an equation with Tubman exposes the delusion of demonstrators who believe they are in the midst of a powerful social movement instead of a tired ritual.

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