In Defense of the Silly: From Direct Action to the Pies of MarchShare
Comedy and play are essential aspects of protest and social movements.
I work with a group called Times Up! Toward the end of our recent Pies of March ride, we engaged in a pie fight at the house of one of our political opponents. As the ride ended, there were some negative tweets about our tactics. It made me wonder whether many of these critics had ever studied the history of social movements. If they had they would find that behind most successful movements, right and left, lay examples of disruptive tactics. From the suffragettes to the Black Panthers, gay liberation to global justice, and even the Brooks Brothers riot disrupting the Bush vs Gore recounts, countless movements have made use of direct action, sometimes serious, sometimes silly, to take down their opponents a notch. The point is to put ideas on the social agenda. Direct action gets people thinking. Here, people with little other access to power highlight things they oppose by creating a richer, more colorful image of something better. In our case, the dance involved some fun, music, joy, singing, and a little street theatrics. The practice is not unusual.
Toward the end of her 2007 work Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich offers a telling observation. "[W]hatever its shortcomings as a means to social change, protest movements keep reinventing carnival... Almost every demonstration I have been to -- has featured some element of the carnivalesque: costumes, music, impromptu dancing, the sharing of food and drink." For Ehrenreich, such forms of "collective joy" are an essential component of social movement practice: "People must find, in their movement, the immediate joy of solidarity, if only because, in the face of overwhelming state or corporate power, solidarity is their sole source of strength." Many organizers recognize such activities offer a useful compliment to an ongoing organizing campaign. Without them, organizing efforts tend to lose steam, or worse become boring. Their addition increases means and motivation for long term participation. Still, critics remain. Some say such tactics may alienate supporters: wear sweaters and suits so as not to turn off the workers; look proper to get the job done. "The media often deride the carnival spirit of protests, as if it were a self-indulgent distraction from the serious political point," Ehrenreich explains. "But seasoned organizers know that gratification cannot be deferred until after the "revolution." Despite the contention that ludic activities are counterproductive, movements continue to put the right to party, the right to pleasure, on the table as a part of a larger process of social change.
Perhaps the most consistent criticism of play in movement building is that ludic activity is a class-bound form of engagement, which only those with leisure time can enjoy. Andrew Boyd (the founder of the Billionaires for Bush), Steve Duncombe (one of the founders of New York's chapter of Reclaim the Streets), and I had to confront this line of questioning after we all presented an activist performance, play, and fantasy during a conference on the legacies of 1968. On the train on the way back from the talk, we reflected on this recurring line of criticism. Boyd recounted a famous story. "All power to the imagination" -- that was the graffiti painted on the streets of Paris in 1968, Boyd noted. Yet, some argued this sentiment betrayed the class struggle. "All power to the workers," a labor activist insisted in a debate with Paul Virilio. "Comrade, are you denying the workers have an imagination?" Virilio responded, dismissing this myopic charge. Boyd smiled recalling Virilio's pithy retort to the reductionist line of criticism. As Kirk Fuoss highlights in Striking Performances / Performing Strikes, play and performance has long been a part of class-based labor movements. Its role in such movements is often undervalued or not even recognized.
Even a cursory glimpse of movement history indicates play is anything but a class-bound activity. Letters from civil rights workers who participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964 suggest social eros, dancing, beer drinking, singing, hooking up, and an unbridled sense of social connection were an ongoing component of the Civil Rights years. The struggle to break down racial, social, cultural, and sexual barriers included a great deal of play and social experimentation. Those in the movement described these feelings and practices as the "freedom high."
"When you are locked arm in arm with your friends and you are running into a line of police and you tell them to screw off, why wouldn't that be play?" Frances Fox Piven commented at a recent conference. The point is that fighting authority can be a joyous endeavor.
It was with this spirit in mind that Times Up! held its annual Pies of March ride on March 19th. The ride featured an effigy of Marty Markowitz driving the "SUV of Shame," a tricycle converted into an SUV with faces posted in the windows showing Marty's passengers -- the influential sitting and ex-politicians, who care more about the availability of parking spaces and their political aspirations, than the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, including, Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel, Senator Schumer and Public Advocate Bill DiBlasio. The SUV rode down the hugely popular Prospect Park West bike lane. Marty, played by myself, expressed his opinion on cycling in Brooklyn. He passed by numerous families with children riding down the lane on a brisk but delightful Saturday afternoon.
"Back in the 1950s, when Robert Moses was around, you would have never had support for people riding bikes around Brooklyn. Those were the days," our Markowitz declared. "Today, everyone wants to ride a bike instead of paying $4.00 a gallon of gas; fuggetaboutit!'"
An effigy of Janette Sadik-Khan rode alongside Marty. She enlightened on the benefits of bike lanes. The Pies of March ride proceeded to Chuck and Iris' apartment building at 9 Prospect Park West. A crowd of hecklers cut short Janette's beautiful soliloquy on cycling in NYC. The group consisted of cyclists dressed as the various players trying to stifle the growth of cycling, including one dressed as Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who is allocating scarce city resources toward discouraging cycling. Marty threw the first pies at Janette. The others followed his lead and pies flew everywhere.
"Politics are too funny to be left to the politicians and comedy is too serious to be left to the professional funny-men. That's why we brought out the pies," I was quoted in the press release, paraphrasing Bertell Ollman. "These guys are trying to take away something the community board unanimously supports, something that saves lives. They do not deserve to be taken seriously."
Monica Hunken, who played Janette Sadik-Kahn in the action, reflected on one of the conversations she had with a fellow activist about the action during the New York Left Forum on March 20st. "'They have to know that we're serious about this issue," she recalled a fellow bike supporter telling her. "Well, of course we're serious about the issue. You can be serious about something and be joyful. The action that we were doing was very joyful, we were celebrating life on earth together. We have to laugh and we have to sing, and we have to have all that humanity, cause that is humanity. We are the most human when we are in our embarrassed state, in our laughing state. And that is more serious than it can get."
And this of course is a point in which social theorists from Douglas Crimp to philosopher Slavoj Zizek agree. In a 2005 interview, Zizek specifically argued there is a rationale for such thinking. "The only way to signal you are serious, at the level of form, is to make fun of yourself," he explained. This is where the circus-like carnivalesque finds appeal. "This pseudo-Heideggerian jargon, we live in fateful times, the destiny of humanity is threatened blah, blah, blah -- I think you cannot talk like that," Zizek elaborated. So one has to find different ways to engage the serious.
In his 2007 work, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, philosopher Simon Critchley takes on the subject. Writing about contemporary ludic performance groups such as the Billionaires for Bush and Ya Basta!, Critchley described some of the distinct logic to such activism:
These comical tactics hide a serious political intent: they exemplify the effective forging of chains of equivalence or collective will formation across diverse and otherwise conflicting protest groups. Deploying a politics of subversion, contemporary anarchist practice exercises a satirical pressure on the state in order to show that other forms of life are possible. Picking up on my thoughts about humor, it is the exposed, self-ridiculing and self-undermining character of these forms of protest that I find most compelling as opposed to the pious humorlessness of most forms of vanguardist active nihilism and some forms of contemporary protest (I name no names). Groups like the Pink Bloc or Billionaires for Bush are performing their powerlessness in the face of power in a profoundly powerful way. Politically, humor is a powerless power that uses its position of weakness to expose those in power through forms of self-aware ridicule.
Here, Critchley suggests play and ridicule are rightful ingredients within a social battle against often insurmountable targets. They are tools used to both take down political opponents in a form of "radical ridicule," as LM Bogad suggests, and ways to take themselves less seriously. The anti-heroic aesthetics of ludic activist practices are indeed appealing for those who have grown weary of the over-used rhetoric of the left.
"We all know that life is hard. We all know that there is war and blood and suffering," Monica Hunken continued at Left Forum. "That is so deep upon us and so weighted on our backs." This inspires the guilt-ridden hair-shirt left to reject the politics of fun, while embracing a politics of respectability. Yet, there is more to life than looking dignified. Countless movements, the Mattachine Society before Stonewall and the other pre-civil-rights groups, called for their followers to look dignified. Yet, they rarely accomplished much until the Stonewall Riots or sit-ins challenged the moral bankruptcy of the system as it stood. Remember, bike opponents looked dignified at Jimmy Vacca's city council hearing on the bike lanes last fall. Most of us still had to wait for hours to get to speak as opponents droned on and on in a one-sided panel. We played by their rules and no one paid attention. If we play by the rules of the system, we lose. The rules are stacked. In gambling as in life, you never bet against the house. Still, the left frequently does. It embraces a politics of shame and dourness, hoping not to offend, rather than pushing back. It's Tom Daschle embracing Bush before going down in political defeat over and over again. Countless movements have challenged this logic, from the IWW to the Gay Liberation Front, and so on. Many have come to embrace the inside outside strategy -- the more the merrier. The Sierra Club sues; Earth First does blockades; Martin preaches and Malcolm declares by any means necessary. Some sit at the policy table; others embrace street theatrics.
For Hunken, the best way to cut through this these barriers is with humor, storytelling, and dreams: "We have to tap into that kind of playfulness in a way and not be afraid of it because we're the ones who know what is sad and really right. We have to be able to play with that glee and that storytelling."
When ACT UP first began, many misunderstood its defiant gestures aimed at those in power, such as throwing blood or dressing like clowns at Congressional Hearings. But over time people began to reconsider why it was that the group would make use of such outlandish tactics. And public opinion shifted. Even in the short time since our pie fight, the same thing has begun to happen. For example, Aaron Naparstek, of Streetsblog, has begun to change his tune, tweeting on March 22, 2011: "Changed my mind on @NYCtimesup's pie fight. Let the residents of 9 PPW know this is what their law suit hath wrought." That was the point of the action after all.
"You gotta listen to the crazies," Stonewall veteran Bob Kohler used to implore. Like Feste or the fool in King Lear, there is a long tradition of the wise fool, who usually gets it right.
Usually it's a good idea to pay attention to the fool.