the power of protest theater

I finally made it out to a protest last night in Berkeley over state violence and police brutality, hearing about the march from my fellow dance-flashmobbers. I’m in a group called GUST (Get Up Street Theater), wherein we show up at protests and do one of two dances—one that’s about the environment, and the other that’s related to military industrial complex, state violence, and police brutality.

Our dances—especially in the case of our “Toxic” dance, done to Britney Spears’ top hit song from the early oughts of the same name—is a little bit cutesy. Sometimes it feels like being in a protest cheer leading group. But the point is that it makes onlookers watch, a bit engrossed in the sudden theatrics and the loud music. People put their guard down, which is something most random passerbys don’t do when they see a protest. It lets us get our message across and makes it memorable.

Up until yesterday, I felt that going to a rally, a protest, or a march and doing our dances would make other participants of the general action a little uplifted, inspired, or at the very least, amused. But one of the times we did it last night…it missed the mark. It detracted from the crowd’s collective rhythm of their chants: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” It felt like it added to the impending chaos of that moment when we came upon the headquarters for the Berkeley Police Department. Only a few minutes after we finished the dance, the police began shooting tear gas and the crowd dispersed into a frenzy.

The timing and the use of it matters a ton. Last night, I felt bad that we were detracting from the leaders of the march. It really didn’t help that none of us in GUST are people of color…

[Vine of our dance at the protest]

Despite my misgivings about this particular protest last night, I still believe in the power of theater in direct actions.

Die in at University of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeSolidarity with Ferguson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Die-In [Source]

Many of the more well-known aspects of these protests is the powerful use of theatrics. Hundreds of people holding their hands up, saying don’t shoot. A die-in in the middle of a busy square or street. Students dragging twin-sized dorm mattresses across campuses to represent the weight of the burden of living in a sexist, misogynist system that doesn’t do enough to take care of rape victims. These convey powerful images that get at the heart of these institutional transgressions. They empower people across state and national boundaries, and maybe just as importantly, they help these protests make the evening news in a way that can cut through the incessant mainstream media’s emphasis on the rioting and violence on the fringes of these larger actions.

What’s exciting about this isn’t just that protest theater has been so effective in these recent demonstrations, it’s also that there’s tons of more room for experimentation.