“Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”: Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson

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

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

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What does this gesture mean for the different bodies that enact it? How do protesters assign new meanings to such a codified bodily gesture? How can we read these protests as choreographic tactics and gestures of resistance?

By now, you know this phrase well. In 2014, it became the rallying cry of those protesting the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Like other memorable activist slogans—such as “Hell no! We won’t go!” “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” “No justice? No peace!”—it captures the essence of collective anger in response to social injustice.

Unlike other slogans, though, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” is not just voiced. It is also embodied. Contained within the phrase is both a plea not to shoot, as well as the bodily imperative to lift one’s hands up. Since Michael Brown’s death, we’ve seen photos of young black men and women in Ferguson, Tibetan monks from India, black Harvard law students, professional football players, school children in Missouri, young people in Moscow, U.S. state representatives, and a church congregation in New York City with their hands up in protest. Some stand, some kneel, some bend their heads, some stare straight ahead. Each one symbolises a bodily act of solidarity with Michael Brown and victims of oppression of state-over-citizen around the world. As Los Angeles Times journalist Matt Pearce notes, the hands up gesture “has been transformed into a different kind of weapon.”1

What does this gesture mean for the different bodies that enact it? How do protesters assign new meanings to such a codified bodily gesture? How can we read these protests as choreographic tactics and gestures of resistance? Why is the deployment of the body in the case of the Ferguson protests so significant?

I want to offer five ways of reading this gesture in the following list, which is by no means exhaustive:

Arms rise and extend high in the air to reveal open, empty, unarmed palms. A silent scream, this gesture pleads with its spectator: I am innocent. I am unarmed. I am not a threat. I surrender. I submit. Submission and fear have become embedded in the black body, a part of its daily habitus. According to Loïc Wacquant, habitus, a term attributed to French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, is “the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them.”2 Young black men and women in the U.S. learn this gesture of surrender and submission early on when dealing with police. Black parents teach their children that if they get pulled over, for example, they should move slowly and deliberately and dictate their actions to the officer, offering a kind of play-by-play of their body’s movements. I am unfastening my seatbelt. I am reaching into the glove compartment. I am handing you my registration. In a society where the presence of black bodies in public spaces is seen as de facto threatening, unruly, and “out of place,” black men and women are forced to justify their everyday movements, to make their bodies legible to structures and institutions of power. Even the body’s most mundane actions—walking home in the case of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin, knocking on someone’s door in the case of Renisha McBride, or adjusting a waistband in the case of Kimani Gray—are questioned, challenged, and deemed suspicious. Through repeated enactments, the hands up don’t shoot gesture has become part of the black body’s repertoire of survival.

What happens when this universal sign is not respected? When this bodily act of submission does not register as submission but as threat? Michael Brown’s sign of surrender was willfully ignored by police officer Darren Wilson. Brown’s enactment of the gesture failed to communicate across the racialized chasm between state and citizen, officer and subject, white and black. As blogger keguro notes, Michael Brown’s murder “indexes the failure of this bodily vernacular when performed by a black body, a killable body […] Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular, the error that makes this bodily action illegible, the disposability that renders the gesture irrelevant. [It is read as] always already threatening, even when that movement says, ‘I surrender.’”3 In short, blackness is what lays bare the limits of this kinesthetic sign, what turns this universal gesture of submission into a gesture of guilt, criminality, and culpability. This bodily act was supposed to signify surrender, but it failed. It could not save Michael Brown.

Alive, blackness was all the “proof” the officer needed to ascertain Michael Brown’s guilt. Wilson shot Michael Brown not once, not twice, but at least six times, in order, presumably, to make sure he was really dead. Paul Buckley, Assistant Vice President and Director of the Butler Center at Colorado College, refers to this as the “overkilling of black bodies,”4 part of what Jasbir Puar calls the “biopolitics of debilitation.”5 In death, Michael Brown’s black skin was opened up and turned inside out in order to prove his innocence. He was repeatedly autopsied, sliced open not once, not twice, but three times in order to make sure he was really innocent. Were the bullet wounds to the top of his head not enough? Was the fact that he was unarmed not enough? Were the eyewitnesses who said he had his hands up and said don’t shoot not enough? The overkilling and the over-autopsying of black bodies is not unrelated. If guilt is skin deep, then it follows that innocence can only be found under the skin. So, even in death, it is the black body that is charged with carrying the heavy and unrelenting burden of proof.

By raising their hands in the air, the protesters remind us over and over and over again that all the bodily proof we need of Michael Brown’s innocence is the position of his body when he died. The gesture reminds us that witnesses saw Michael Brown kneeling with his head down and his arms up when Wilson shot him. It reminds us that the police violated the code not to shoot when a person’s hands are up.6 It reminds us that the black body is never presumed innocent moving in white spaces. That space itself is white.

The hands up don’t shoot slogan implores the protestor not only to stand in solidarity with Michael Brown by re-enacting his last movements, but also to empathise by embodying his final corporeal act of agency. As a collective gesture, it compels us to take note of and publicly acknowledge the bodily proof of Michael Brown’s innocence.

As Dance Studies scholar Susan Foster argues, protest is conceptualised either “as a practice that erupts out of a bodily anger over which there is no control” or “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.”7 I suggest that analysing the protests as choreographic tactics disrupts the popular, media-fed view of the Ferguson protesters as mobs of black bodies that are unruly, lawless, and unpredictable. The actions of the protesters are carefully rehearsed and choreographed; they are intentional gestural acts deployed to protest the status quo and effect change. By protesting peacefully with hands up, they “refut[e] in the act of protest the stereotypes on which prejudice against them was rationalised.”8 While the bodies of protesters often “refuse to comply with the bodies of those in positions of authority,”9 in the case of the Ferguson protesters, it is actually through the ultimate and most recognizable gesture of cooperation that these protesting bodies tactically perform non-cooperation with an unjust and racist state.

Performance Studies scholar André Lepecki’s notion of “choreopolicing” and “choreopolitics” is important for understanding the political significance of the protesting body in Ferguson. He defines choreopolitics as the choreography of protest, or simply the freedom to move freely, which he claims is the ultimate expression of the political. He defines choreopolicing as the way in which “the police…determines the space of circulation for protesters, and ensures that everyone is in their permissible place”10—imposing blockades, dispersing crowds, dragging bodies. The purpose of choreopolicing, he argues, is “to de-mobilise political action by means of implementing a certain kind of movement that prevents any formation and expression of the political.”11 Lepecki then asks what are the relations between political demonstrations as expressions of freedom, and police counter-moves as implementations of obedience? How do the choreopolitics of protest and the choreopolicing of the state interact?

In Ferguson, we saw ample evidence of choreopolicing—police lined up in military like formations, charging suddenly or marching steadily forward like in battle, even their tactic of dispersing through the streets of Ferguson was a kind of choreographed chaos meant to break up groups and induce panic. If police formations and blockades in Ferguson are choreopolicing strategies of an increasingly militarized police force, the hands up don’t shoot gesture has become a choreopolitical tactic of defiance. Demonstrators walk towards police officers with their hands up, challenging police officers to shoot, daring them to respond, to reckon with the officers’ culpability, to remind them of their culpability. The protesters’ movements defy structures of state power which restrict where, when, how, and with whom black bodies can move in public spaces. When young men like Michael Brown can be harassed and killed for walking in the middle of the street, the mere act of walking in a group through the streets of Ferguson constitutes an act of defiance, a choreopolitics of freedom.

I want to come back to a question I posed earlier: Why is the deployment of the body in the case of the Ferguson protests so significant? The black body in the U.S. is seen as disposable, inhuman, valueless. The fact that police left Michael Brown’s dead body in the street for four hours is proof of this. As writer Charles P. Pierce points out, “Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society. Bodies lie in the street for four hours in small countries where they have perpetual civil war […] Bodies are not left in the streets of leafy suburbs.”12 The bodily act of the hands up don’t shoot protests takes those same bodies that are surveilled, disciplined, controlled, and killed and infuses them with power and a voice. It resurrects those dead bodies left lying in the street, and asks us, no, compels us to confront the alive-ness of the black body as a force of power and resistance.

Lepecki argues that if to be political is the ability to move freely, then the ideal political subject is the ‘dancer.’ To me, the Ferguson protesters are quintessential dancers who, even in the most policed spaces, “the tightest of choreographic scores” as he so beautifully puts it, can transform a space of control, in which their movements are restricted, into a space of freedom, in which their movements are defiant, bold, and empowered—a space in which they have the ability to move freely. With their hands up, the protesters reclaim a space for mobility for Michael Brown, for Trayvon Martin, for Eric Garner, for John Crawford, for Renisha McBride, for Yvette Smith, for Tarika Wilson and for all those named and unnamed black men and women who, in one way or another, raised their hands up and said ———.

Since the Ferguson protests in 2014, the hands up, don’t shoot gesture has continued to provide activists with a powerful corporeal language with which to call out racial injustice. In the wake of Ferguson and the seemingly endless spate of police killings prior and since, more and more dancers and artists have been using performance as a platform for political protest. Following the news that the Staten Island police officer who killed Eric Garner would not be indicted by a grand jury, the dance community in Philadelphia traveled through the city to mourn Garner and the many unarmed black men and women who have died at the hands of police. The choreographed dirge included eight counts with hands up, eight counts holding parts of the body as if wounded, eight counts hunched over with hands behind backs, and eight counts bringing hands to chests. In 2014, the group Dancing for Justice staged interactive protests across the country that recreated the crime scenes of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others.

The 2015 Grammy performances by Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams both included dancers standing with their hands up, striking a more somber tone than the Grammys is used to. Williams’s performance of “Happy,” for example, was anything but. Dancers in black hoodies raised their hands and stood facing the audience in stone-faced silence. Beyoncé’s performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” from the soundtrack for Selma, included an all-male choir clad in crisp white, three-piece suits slowly lifting their hands up in the air, a gesture that seemed to be equal parts prayer and protest.

More recently, the music video for Beyoncé’s “Formation” featured a young black boy standing defiant in a hoodie with his hands up in front of a row of police in riot gear. In the aftermath of Ferguson, hands up, don’t shoot has become a potent gesture of embodied protest not just on the streets but also on stages and screens. It is both its universal legibility and its multi-layered meanings that have given the gesture its rhetorical thrust and its affective power to continue to mobilise.

This essay was originally published in The Feminist Wire on October 6, 2014. Reprinted with the kind permission of The Feminist Wire.

Works cited:
1 Matt Pearce, “Protesters use hands-up gesture defiantly after Michael Brown shooting,” LA Times, August 13, 2014.

2 Loïc Wacquant, “Habitus.” International encyclopedia of economic sociology (2005), 316.

3 keguro, “hands up, don’t shoot,” Gukira, August 15, 2015.

4 Ferguson Roundtable, Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO, September 5, 2014.

5 Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, Duke University Press (2017), xiii.

6 Since the original publication of this essay in October 2014, there have been conflicting reports about the position of Michael Brown’s hands when he was shot.

7 Susan Leigh Foster, “Choreographies of Protest,” Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003), 396.

8 Foster 411

9 Foster 396

10 André Lepecki, “Choreopolitics and Choreopolicing: or, the task of the dancer,” TDR/The Drama Review, 57.4 (2013), 16.

11 Lepecki 20

12 Charles Pierce, “The Body in the Street,” Esquire, Aug 22, 2014.