Choreographies of Protest

Issue #10: The Many & The Few - Assembling the political

"We are not throwing power off or away in order to be free. Nor do we believe, cynically, that nothing can be done. Our very presence as protestors is evidence of our belief in the possibility of instigating change."

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“For protest to succeed, it must produce a feeling of moving ahead; it must force people to take notice of injustice; and it must win new allies.”
– Bayard Rustin

We are not throwing power off or away in order to be free. Nor do we believe, cynically, that nothing can be done. Our very presence as protestors is evidence of our belief in the possibility of instigating change.

Of the 189 different methods of protest surveyed in The Politics of Nonviolent Action, pacifist Gene Sharp identifies twelve varieties of “physical intervention.” As distinct from strikes, boycotts, and symbolic public acts such as marches and theatricals, Sharp categorises sit-ins, walk-ins, pray-ins, and occupations as varieties of intervention “characterised by the interference created by people’s physical bodies.”2 In this essay, I want to trouble the distinction that Sharp makes between symbolic action and physical intervention by approaching the body as a vast reservoir of signs and symbols, by envisioning the body as capable of both persuasion and obstinate recalcitrance. At the same time, I want to celebrate Sharp’s contention that the physical body can and does create interference. At this moment in history when bodies gather primarily at shopping malls and when protest is frequently conducted through the online circulation of petitions and social media, I want to argue that this physical interference makes a crucial difference. Approaching the body as articulate matter, I hope to demonstrate the central role that physicality plays in constructing both individual agency and sociality.

Classic theories of political protest envision the body as an agitated irrationality, propelling individuals into the chaos of mob performance.3 Swept up into the fervour of the crowd, the body succumbs to the unpredictable whims of the masses. Subsequent theories conceptualise protest as the calculated pursuit of narrowly defined interests, which emerges when the political or economic opportunity to leverage a complaint presents itself.4 Each of these explanatory frameworks depends upon an oppositionality between thought and action, the first because it presumes the inefficacy of spontaneous events, and the second, because it disregards the protest itself, focusing instead only on the gains and losses of the protestors’ agenda. Both dismiss the body, either by conceptualising protest as a practice that erupts out of a bodily anger over which there is no control, or by envisioning it as a practice that uses the body only as an efficacious instrument that can assist in maximizing efficiency. Neither hypothesises the body as an articulate signifying agent, and neither seriously considers the tactics implemented in the protest itself. Yet, as social movement theorist James Jasper observes, “Tactics are rarely, if ever, neutral means about which protestors do not care. Tactics represent important routines, emotionally and morally salient in these peoples’ lives.”5

This essay reconstructs nonviolent protest during three moments in recent US history—the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, the ACT-UP die-ins of the late 1980s, and the World Trade Organization meetings protest in Seattle, Washington in 1999. Each of these protests takes up a distinctive issue, addressing a different kind of social injustice, yet all three share a grass roots profile, in which they seem to come forth onto the social stage in an unanticipated way, lacking any charismatic leader. They also form part of a large-scale series of initiatives that, in each case, realised significant social change. In the first two cases, there existed a marked discrepancy between the ostensible laws governing public space and the actual practices of participants within that space. This discrepancy created an opportunity for concerned citizens to make evident that very contradiction. For the Civil Rights movement, the laws regulating equal, that is to say desegregated, access to public facilities strongly contrasted with social practice. For the AIDS protests, the rhetoric of humanitarian concern for all strongly contrasted the policies of funding based on homophobic assumptions about the nature of the disease. The WTO Seattle protest, in contrast, pointed toward a global set of policies that affect various populations differently. It synthesised a broad range of grievances including ecological conservation, labour rights, and gender equality. All three moments, however, shared a recalcitrant physicality that refuses to comply with the bodies of those in positions of authority. And all three implemented a tactics of non-violent direct action for which bodies rehearsed specific procedures of non-cooperation.

I do not intend to read these events as dances, for that would radically de-contextualise their motivation and intent. Nor do I intend to demonstrate the close ties between artists and activists that may influence a given choice of action.6 Instead, I want to reconstruct these events, asking of them the kinds of questions that a dance scholar might ask:

More Than a Hamburger7
In February of 1960, four black male college students walked into a Woolworth’s store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina; they bought several small items and then sat down at the white-only lunch counter. When the white waitress announced that she could not serve them, they showed her the articles they had purchased only a few yards away and insisted that the store did serve black customers. They reiterated this explanation to a perplexed store manager who arrived a few moments later. And then they sat at the counter, quietly, knowing full well they would never be served, until the store closed a few hours later. During that time a black dishwasher came out to scold them for being so stupid as to sit at the white-only counter instead of the black counter located around the corner. A policeman passing by came in to observe the scene, pacing back and forth, hitting the palm of his hand with his billy club. Two white middle-aged women shoppers paused to pat the students on the back, remarking that they should have done this years earlier. Throughout these various encounters, the four students maintained a calm silence, refraining from response to either criticism or encouragement. Facing forward, looking expectant, their bodies continually posed the question, “Why can’t we be served?”

Although not the first lunch counter sit-in, the Greensboro incident marked the beginning of a rapid expansion in similar protests. Within weeks lunch counter sit-ins occurred in downtown department stores and public buildings all across the northern south, eventually spreading across the entire southern US. Civil rights historian Claiborne Carson observes that the students who composed the vast majority of those protesting aspired to enjoy mainstream, middle-class privileges, only slowly realising that, as Ella Baker proclaimed, their actions were about “more than a hamburger.” These students’ bodies were not out of place, but rather, the wrong colour. Unlike a general sit-in, used to block access or to insistently remind those in power of protestors’ demands, the lunch counter sit-ins performed the function of the very action they were protesting, and this reflexive status of their actions must have contributed to their appeal. Not only did their sitting convey a double significance, as quotidian event and as protest, but it reverberated with the tension created among all the bodies who, in contrast, circulated through the space.

The protestors’ nonviolent training helped them to maintain this control even when the situation turned violent. Throughout the sit-ins, enraged whites purposefully bumped into, tripped over, and assaulted protestors, spilling or throwing drinks at them. Occasionally, blacks did retaliate, shouting or punching back. Mostly, they persevered, day after day, in demonstrating inequality, enabling the interference that their bodies caused to wreak economic and social havoc on the businesses that practiced segregation.

The stillness of the protestors’ bodies seemed to some to reinforce the stereotype of the passive Negro waiting expectantly for consideration, and this prompted some to defy the pact of nonviolence by taking up a more aggressive and retaliatory plan of action.8 Yet stillness also gave them a powerful position from which to exert a sense of agency.

As the number of sit-ins grew, large chains of stores such as Woolworths began to feel the impact of lost revenues. In many towns, the sit-ins inspired boycotts and picket lines that prompted blacks and sympathetic whites to abstain from shopping in any segregated establishments. Within six months many businesses had agreed to negotiations with civic leaders that resulted in desegregation, and civil rights advocates were galvanized to plan new actions, such as the Freedom Rides on public buses, that continued the push for civil rights and ultimately changed race relations in the US. The lunch counter sit-ins, however, figure as a cornerstone of this activism because it gave so many individuals the opportunity to participate directly in an action that asserted new rights and a new justice.

Acting Up, Dying In
Whereas the discrimination addressed by the lunch counter sit-ins was everywhere evident, blatantly manifest in the segregation of black and white bodies in public spaces, the discrimination against those infected with HIV during the 1980s operated at a more clandestine level. State and local governments, churches, drug companies, and health organizations all responded to the AIDS crisis with homophobic suspicion, envisioning the disease as the inevitable product of obscene sexual practices and failing to estimate its impact on American society. ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in 1987, undertook to change public opinion about, and policy on the disease.9 This group of mostly middle-class white gay men conducted extensive research on a confluence of institutions responsible for responding to the AIDS crisis. And they began to organise multiple, small-scale protests, using a minimum number of people to effect maximum disruption in objecting to the insufficient response to a critical problem.

Like the sit-ins protestors, ACT UPers endeavoured to adapt their protests to the specific geographical and social environments in which they found themselves. Among the earliest actions, die-ins jumbled lower Manhattan, disrupting the commutes of those working on Wall Street and at adjacent corporate facilities housing companies known for their profiteering from experimental treatments for AIDS. A signature form of demonstration, especially in the early years of ACT UP, die-ins featured bodies moving from vertical standing to horizontal lying, occasionally exaggerating the fall with flare and angst, more often transiting pragmatically onto the ground.

In contrast to Civil Rights protests, ACT UP events were conceived, in part, to attract and utilise media attention to spread the word about their cause. Lunch counter protestors benefited from newspaper and television documentation, but they did not purposefully organize their protests with media coverage in mind. As civil rights activist Bayard Rustin observes:

ACT UP’s policy of attracting and using media to broadcast its message reflected its view that the media functions not as pure documentation but as a social force that sways public opinion, and hence, must be manipulated.11

ACT UP was organised into units known as affinity groups. Whatever the action, ACT UP insisted that members adopt a regimen of nonviolence. Drawing on protocols used during the Civil Rights protests, the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and Gene Sharp’s studies of nonviolent protest, ACT UP members identified principles of response to violence designed to promote respect and reconciliation. Continually changing both physical postures and verbal perspectives on the point of disagreement, protestors endeavoured to appeal to opponents for understanding while managing the level of hostility.

Vacillating between Brechtian detachment and “avant-garde acting that seeks to erase the boundary between performer and role,” Solomon sees participants in ACT UP as either commenting on the role they are playing or fervently fused to the act of protest. But it is also possible to see the donning of a T-shirt, the singing of chants or shaking of fists that the activist describes as “techniques of the body” that must be learned.12 Over the time that they are practiced, they acquire increasing influence over corporeal and also individual identity. Not a script that the protestor learns to execute, these are, rather, actions that both require and provide strong commitment and, once practiced, slowly change the world in which they occur.

This is What Democracy Looks Like
Building on the affinity group model developed in anti-nuclear and ACT UP actions, the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle brought together an unprecedented variety of constituencies dedicated to political change. Rather than convene for a political rally where they would gather as a large mass to listen to and support speakers addressing crucial issues, the Direct Action Network (DAN) coordinated these groups’ independent involvement in four days of protests. Throughout the WTO convention, protestors, diverse in race and age and sporting costumes or props that emblematised their specific concerns, claimed the streets, exuberantly walking, standing, shouting, waving banners, sitting-in, holding hands, or clasping arms in differing configurations so as to create solidarity in unabashed opposition to police and in support of the people.

As protestors descended on Seattle, DAN worked to coordinate their movements, making use of pagers, cell phones, and walkie-talkies. Police, caught off guard by the large numbers, worked to contain the demonstrations, but the spontaneously choreographed movement of affinity groups evaded their efforts and successfully disrupted the conference.

The video documentary This Is What Democracy Looks Like splices together images recorded by over one hundred videographers and photographers who participated in the protests over four days of actions.13 It details the disparities between media coverage of the event and the experiences of participants, countering mainstream media’s exaggerated estimates of the damage to property and their portrayal of the demonstrators as rabid animals bent on destruction.

On the video one anonymous participant describes his experience this way:
Here, the protestor claims that in the tumult and upheaval of civil disobedience, participants tapped a primal connection to one another and to a collective vision of freedom. Felt physically as a power in their bodies, their effort to resist forces of domination and control evoked a memory of past protest. With the “edges of their skin marked by global and historical struggle”, they underwent a transformation in their own sense of agency, one that endowed them with newly found freedom as individuals and as a collective.

But what is it about the body that ordains it as the catalyst for this transformation? Does the body command some kind of primordial connection to the past that can be accessed in moments of crisis? Does it enjoy the capacity to empathise directly with other bodies in struggle? To place the body in this role as unmediated cipher of energy or empathy is to lose the opportunity to reflect on the amount and kind of physical labour that goes in to establishing the connection among bodies that protestors experienced. Seattle protestors, like those involved with lunch counters sit-ins and ACT UP actions, trained to perform as they did. They underwent programs of exercise to pattern their pacifism. This cultivation of physicality prepared bodies to apprehend the like-mindedness of adjacent resisting bodies. It instilled the potential to feel connected as a community of bodies partaking in a common effort. Rather than transcending cultural and historical specificities, these protestors’ practice of nonviolence, instantiated differently in each political setting, built an articulated network of resistance.

To envision nonviolence as a global tactics is not to discount the distinctiveness of each of the bodies examined here. During the lunch-counter sit-ins, black bodies, marked at that moment in history as irrational, primitive, intrinsically violent or excessive, sat still, thereby refuting in the act of protest the stereotypes on which prejudice against them was rationalized. In the ACT UP die-ins, sick and healthy bodies lay side by side, ushering the place of a body, dying or dead from neglect, into public space, and with it the repressed knowledge of an epidemic. Both these groupings of bodies displayed a physical relationship, black skin or HIV-related symptoms, to the oppression they suffered. Bodies of WTO protestors, in contrast, did not register so obviously the effects of the policies they were protesting against. In some measure privileged, and demonstrating on behalf of others less fortunate, they enjoyed a freer perambulation through public space, taking advantage not only of cell phone and pager technology but also of their entitlement as primarily first-world citizens to break up and re-group throughout a first-world city.

What the winter and spring 2003 demonstrations world-wide protesting the US invasion of Iraq have shown is the potential for these distinctive kinds of bodies to work together, and hence for nonviolent action to contest Empire’s actions on a scale that matches its dominion. Exuberant, pleasure-filled, and witty, and uniting unusually diverse groups of people, these demonstrations are building on those that preceded them. As I walk down the street, sandwiched between immigration and gay rights activists, seventy-year-old ecologists on one side, twenty-year-old students on the other, I sense a certain optimism that comes from having made the decision to commit the day to this activity. Why? My body, white, middle-aged, post-hippy, queerly female, and those around me are learning to trust public space and what one might encounter in it. We are reading each others’ differences, apprehending the disjointedness of the body politic that marks our distinctive histories; yet we are moving shoulder to shoulder together down the street. Like the lunch-counter sit-inners and the ACT UPers, we do not believe that we are overthrowing power. We are not throwing power off or away in order to be free. Nor do we believe, cynically, that nothing can be done. Our very presence as protestors is evidence of our belief in the possibility of instigating change.

In such moments, bodies work with what is at hand. They feel with and learn from other bodies, both friendly and hostile. Even as they endeavour to practice the principles of nonviolence around which their actions are oriented, they must frequently make split-second decisions about how to protect themselves or how to push forward in an unplanned way. Not radical departures from group solidarity, these moments vivify the forcefulness and vulnerability of everyone involved. They make evident the range of kinesthetic responsiveness exercised by all bodies in response to one another. Engaging in their lunch counter protests, for example, sit-inners learned two new kinds of kinaesthetic articulateness, active stillness and passivity. Filled with kinetic potential while seated, their stillness, not a state of non-action but rather a kind of motion, consisted in monitoring and refraining from casually abundant kinetic impulses. Learning to resist coercive onslaughts by attackers and to absorb their hostile energy, their passivity in response to an attack was not a letting go of energy but rather a determined softening of exterior tension so as to absorb the shock of a blow. AIDS protestors, in contrast, spread their physicality horizontally on the ground so as to claim space, exerting proprietorship over public space. Both nonchalant and aggressive, they actively slackened their bodies in non-compliance while at the same time shouting slogans and critiques at police and bystanders. Yet a third kind of physical responsiveness was manifest in Seattle protestors, who learned to think on their feet, organising both their trajectories and their actions while in motion.

When individuals choose to participate in these kinds of political demonstration, they commit themselves to physical action, they choose to spend their day constructing physical interference, and this engagement with the physical imbues them with a deepened sense of personal agency. In achieving this sense of agency, protestors are not enacting a script, where the body would function as mere instrument of expression, the meat that carries around the subject. Nor is agency the product of the heightened sense of physicality that results when the body steps outside the quotidian routines of daily life and into non-normative action. Agency does not manifest as the product of a transcendent state. Instead, the process of creating political interference calls forth a perceptive and responsive physicality that, everywhere along the way, deciphers the social and then choreographs an imagined alternative. As they fathom injustice, organise to protest, craft a tactics, and engage in action, these bodies read what is happening and articulate their imaginative rebuttal. In so doing they demonstrate to themselves and all those watching that something can be done. Could this be why they are called political “movements”?

I want to thank David Román and the anonymous readers of this essay for their valuable comments, and also Melissa Blanco for her inspired research assistance.

A longer version of this article was published in Theatre Journal, Volume 55, Number 3, October 2003 (pp. 395-412). Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press for this abridged version. Abridged version by Philipa Rothfield.

Works cited:
1Bayard Rustin, Strategies for Freedom: The Changing Patterns of Black Protest, New York: Columbia University Press, 1976 (42).

2Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1973 (371).

3See, for example, George Rudé, The Crowd in History: A Survey of Popular Disturbances in France and England, 1730–1848, New York: Wiley, 1964; Georges Gurvitch, The Spectrum of Social Time, Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1964; and Aristide R. Zolberg, “Moments of Madness,” Politics and Society 2 1972 (183–207).

4For an excellent overview of these theories of protest, see James M. Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997 (1– 100). See also Belinda Robnett, African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Spontaneity and Emotion in Social Movement Theory, in “No Middle Ground: Women and Radical Protest”, ed. Kathleen M. Blee, New York: New York University Press, 1998 (65–95).

5James M. Jasper, The Art of Moral Protest, (237).

6Many of the ACT UP protestors were choreographers, dancers, directors, and actors, and this undoubtedly contributed to the kinds of events they staged. For further insight into the relations between artists and activists, see David A. Schlossman, Actors and Activists: Politics, Performance, and Exchange among Social Worlds, New York & London: Routledge, 2002.

7This is the theme of the speech delivered by Ella Baker at the first meeting where various students coordinating sit-ins in different cities organised to become the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker, who had worked for King, believed that the students should have autonomy to develop their own organisation and plan of action, and she organised that first meeting in April 1960.

8This critique of nonviolence as a tactic and an ensuing increase in violent response gained momentum in the months following the sit-ins. During the initial period of the sit-ins, however, there seems to have been a remarkable adherence to the nonviolent regimen.

9By focusing on ACT UP, I do not mean to obscure the earlier activist responses to the AIDS crisis that issued in the form of performances, literature, music, candlelight vigils, memorial services, fundraisers, etc. I am, rather, focusing on a moment in the history of political protest that choreographed the body in a particularly vivid way. For an excellent discussion of early AIDS-related theatre and also the politics of representing AIDS activism, see David Roman, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

10Bayard Rustin, Strategies for Freedom, (44-45).

11This is not to say that ACT UP relied exclusively on mainstream media for their coverage. Protestors also brought along video and photograph cameras with which they documented actions, both to set the record straight regarding culpability and police brutality, and also to use as raw footage for many educational and other alternative documentaries about the AIDS crisis. For a survey and analysis of these video productions, see Alexandra Juhasz, AIDS TV: Identity, Community, and Alternative Video, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.

12The reference here is to Marcel Mauss’s visionary formulation of human action as a repertoire of techniques that are learned. See “Techniques of the Body,” Economy and Society 2.1,1973 (70–87).

13This Is What Democracy Looks Like, an Independent Media Center/Big Noise film production, 1999.