Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent

I helped start a consulting firm to put on other people’s protests. Organizations in North America would hire our team to organize “civil disobedience” involving anywhere from 10 to 10,000 people. They all have a standard set of goals, a never-changing list of menu items. A certain number of people will risk arrest. A specific group will be arrested. Something visually symbolic needs to happen with the appropriate backdrop. A US senator’s home perhaps, or the post card zone in front of the White House.

We rent the stages and sound systems, walkie talkies and bullhorns. We contract out the production of hand painted banners and placards. We coordinate the building of massive props and facilitate “nonviolent direct action” trainings for our client’s action participants. We can produce for our clients anything from dozens of people in koala bear suits to banners affixed to helium balloons to be released in designated convention center lobbies. We can fill an intersection with stuffed animals, if it will provide a moving visual for our client’s narrative needs.

We are our client’s police liaisons. We can navigate the ins and outs of the municipal and federal police forces of major cities. We pull permits. We plan actions without permits. We negotiate arrests ahead of time. We negotiate them during the protests. Sometimes we convince the police to arrest our clients, who are tired students who have been sitting in PVC lock boxes on the sidewalk in front of an elected official’s house too long for the press cycle or are on track to miss their chartered bus reservations.

We are hired to choreograph events intended to appear as manifestations of dynamic, broad based social movements, but any sense of spontaneity in our events is manufactured. Many of the protests that make headlines are less a coalescing of organized dissent than manufactured feel-good content for an activist’s social media feed. (...)

The organizations that hire us have news coverage on the top of their list of goals. The story arc of the planned and paid for event is crafted ahead of time in a familiar “story-based strategy” model. While we carry out the action, the organizational staff are sending out press releases, making press calls, and providing pre-selected spokespersons to media for comment in line with the client’s narrative. When media show up at events, they are directed to press tables where they are fed approved talking points and participants are handed pre-printed chant sheets.

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 clich├ęd 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.

Alongside this myth of the spark that will set the prairie on fire, there is generally the belief that the person targeted, be it a governor, CEO, or even the President, will “do the right thing” if confronted with demonstrations that make a powerful appeal to his or her moral compass. Both “theories of change”rely almost entirely on a media strategy, and thus the steady drift of Social Movement Inc. into PR land.

by Virginia Hotchkiss, Nonsite | Read more:
h/t 3QD