The Art of Social Protest

The Art of Social Protest October 8, 2014

Protest is an art form: a way of bringing to the surface structural inequality and injustice so that people can glimpse, if only for a moment, the invisible cage which constantly imprisons oppressed people. Artful protests reveal inequalities in surprising and provocative ways while remaining non-violent and invitational, inspiring people to think and act differently rather than sparking a fearful reaction.

Ghandi’s Salt March is an exquisite example of protest as an art form. In the early 20th Century, while India was under British occupation, it was illegal for Indians to make and sell salt. Salt – a basic necessity – was heavily taxed by the British, who held a monopoly on its production and sale. To protest this unfair monopoly, Gandhi led a group of activists down to the Arabian sea where they sat in the sand and made salt, breaking British law in a wholly nonviolent way, bringing worldwide attention to the oppression of the Indian people.

The protest was effective because it directly targeted a specific law, because it was so simple and understandable, and because of its powerful aesthetic quality. The images of people in robes collecting water from the sea and making salt with their hands – and then being arrested and beaten for such a simple act – galvanized the world to support Ghandi’s cause. A single artful action sparked a revolution,

The legacy of such artful protests lives on in the efforts of protesters in Ferguson, MO. While it may seem overblown to compare Ghandi’s work  to that of the protester’s in Ferguson, the comparison is apt: in Ferguson, protesters, many of them young, are drawing inspiration from social justice movements of the past to craft beautiful symbolic attacks on the systems of power which oppress people of color.

This is no more evident than in last week’s protest during the interval of a St. Louis Symphony concert, in which a group stood and sang for justice in the lush Powell Symphony Hall. Before the second half of the program began (it was to be Brahms’ Requiem), the participants stood to sing and unfurl banners affirming that racism lives in St. Louis. The protest combined elements of the flash mob with a traditional protest song – “Which Side Are You On”, by union activist Florence Reece – to create a haunting reminder of the nature of the moral choice which confronts St. Louisans and the USA at this time: confront racism, or stand by complicit.

Everything about this protest was smart: the song was well-chosen and related to past struggles; the singers’ voices were strong enough to carry through the hall; the hand-painted banners made clear statements related t the central issue; the protest was timed so as not to disrupt the performance (despite what some irresponsible media reports suggest); the action, titled “Requiem for Mike Brown”, linked directly to the occasion of the protest, a performance of Brahms’ Requiem; the protesters had bought tickets and left peacefully; the choice of song as the medium for protest matches the venue, using the symbolic power of the symphony hall to support the action, for what do you do in a symphony hall but listen to music? The action had a simplicity and aesthetic sensibility which recalls Ghandi’s Salt March. It was, as Salon described, “breathtaking”.

Requiem for Mike Brown

The effectiveness of this artful protest is evident in its national reach: it has been covered throughout the USA and, through pieces on high-profile websites, throughout the world. The skill of the protesters also shines through in the reaction of the symphony audience: though CNN reported that it “shocked the crowd”, it is clear from the video that many supported the action, some rising to their feet to applaud. A less artful protest would have been more polarizing.

An acquaintance who does not share my politics asked me today, indignantly, “How would you feel if you had paid for a ticket to a concert and had it interrupted by people singing and making a protest?”

I thought for a moment about his question. I imagined coming back from the interval to take my seat, suddenly to see and hear the sound of voices from each corner of the hall singing “Justice for Mike Brown is Justice for Us All”, watching as the banners unfurled from the balcony.

“Grateful,” I said. “I’d feel grateful that I was able to witness such a testament to human creativity and dignity.”

I am grateful. I have been inspired by the work of these Ferguson activists. They are artists.

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