Lights, Camera, Action...
College senior Spencer Kingman bears all the marks of the stereotypical young leftist activist: He attends liberal Columbia College, studies documentary film, and spends his free time concocting new ways to shake up public opinion. But don't expect to run into him at the next mass peace march.
In the midst of an anti-war rally in Chicago in spring 2003, Kingman had an epiphany: conventional protest just wasn't working. Completely surrounded by riot police, watching hundreds of protestors being prodded and arrested, his isolation and helplessness were palpable. "I felt weak and irrelevant, for sure, but I was also learning things about political power," says Kingman, who is a member of Columbia's grass roots action group, On the Ground. "I wanted to protest in a way that circumvented this suffocating police control. I wanted to move about freely, interact with people who didn't agree with me, be in charge of my situation."
This type of thinking is what ultimately led Kingman to join a small guerilla theater group; a venue that he says allows him to voice his opinion without being silenced. Since then, he has worked to devise alternative ways to catch the public eye, such as staged political debates in Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) stations and a "sleep-in" on Michigan Avenue during rush hour. "I think protest is always most powerful when it is coming from the places where protest isn't supposed to happen," says Kingman. "Protestors are easy to recognize and easy to ignore, because everyone expects 'protestors' to protest. I have always been more moved by protest at work, in classrooms, at family reunions, in church -- places where it sort of breaks the rules."
What Kingman is advocating is simple: Protests need a makeover. In the current conservative political climate, left-of-center activists need extra oomph if they want the public to listen. The new approach to protest is about surprising people, pushing creativity to the hilt, and having a good time to boot.
Small, alternative-group protest tactics have grown increasingly popular on Chicago-area college campuses. Mateo Hinojosa, a junior at Northwestern University and a member of the group Northwestern Opposing War And Racism (NOWAR), has spearheaded subversive action through guerilla skits, puppetry and public art, in hopes of "galvanizing the apathetic."
Hinojosa explains that strategies framed with drama and music catch people off guard and capture the attention of those who might refuse a flyer, walk past a sit-in or ignore a letter to the editor.
During one action at Northwestern, the group rushed into a crowded cafeteria, banged a drum and acted out depictions of racial profiling and violence against Muslims. The goal was to heighten awareness of anti-Muslim harassment by bringing students face-to-face with the issue, according to NOWAR member Brian Crotty. NOWAR also staged a mock funeral procession that wove its way through campus, depicting mourning Iraqi mothers and paper-bag-headed "Big Oil" moguls with bloody papier-mÃ¢chÃ© hands. "People were kind of taken aback that we had the guts to go all out," says Crotty. "It definitely sparked discussion that I heard later."
As with Kingman and On the Ground, NOWAR members have taken the Iraq War, with its continuing struggles, as an impetus for further activism – not a sign to slow down. "The peace movement remains a very real and very powerful force," says Hinojosa, who is currently studying abroad in Cameroon, where he's producing a bilingual, social justice-oriented play.
1-2-3-4, We Don't Want Another War!
Since the official end of the Iraq War, another quirky protest tactic has become higher profile: cheerleading. "Radical cheerleaders" – groups of skirt-swishing rabble rousers of all shapes, sizes and genders – have taken to the streets. Squads have popped up in almost every major city in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Rome, Warsaw, London and Northern Ireland, according to Mary Christmas, a radical cheerleading pioneer who started the Haymarket Hussies squad in Chicago four years ago.
Cheerleading is a fresh alternative to the typical protest chant, says Queefer Suthernland of the Chicago squad, Lickity Split. "It's a political, farcical, loud, crowd-appealing sing-along for those dissatisfied with American society." Lickity Split takes advantage of cheerleading's direct, shout-it-out approach:
I won't believe one more excuse!
Give us truth and stop abuse!
However, Christmas also notes that in the current politically conservative climate, cheerleading, which conjures up nostalgic images of squeaky clean, simpler times, has drawing power with the mainstream. Hence, creates an opportunity for poignant social commentary. "Cheerleading is a more conservative, status-quo reference, and it surprises people when cheerleaders turn out to be feminist and revolutionary," says Christmas. "That surprise captures attention, and besides, cheerleading is popular in the mainstream for a reason. It's catchy, it's fun, it's infective."
Like guerilla theater, radical cheerleading fares best outside the spotlight of massive protests. Christmas has performed at her share of rallies, but her squads usually hit more unexpected venues: concerts, museums, galleries and school pep rallies.
Mae Singerman, a member of the Madical Radicals squad based in Madison, Wis., describes how her squad often ventures downtown to cheer on street corners, catching passersby off guard with a chant or song. They've even kicked up their skirts at a Madison football game, shouting, "1, 2, 3, 4, we don't want another war!"
"Yeah. They hated us," Singerman said with a laugh.
Yet perhaps even negative reactions are a good sign: They mean that perceptions are being shaken up and that people are talking. Suthernland of Lickity Split emphasizes that small-scale, grass roots efforts like cheerleading are all about showing up uninvited and targeting the unsuspecting. "If we were to come across someone who thought we were ignorant, crude, offensive and inappropriate, we'd probably just give them a big group hug and say, 'Thank you, that's what we're here for,'" she says.
Beyond the Campus
College kids are not the only activists taking to the streets with renewed vigor. Last year the Evanston group Neighbors for Peace (N4P) debuted their "peace-mobile," a wooden box-like structure on wheels, decorated with slogans and filled with anti-war literature. N4P member Dave Tripell compares it to a library "bookmobile." Members wheel the peacemobile through Evanston's public parks on the weekends.
"It's a creative form of educational awareness of what's happening in this country," Tripell said, referring to the PATRIOT Act, the aftermath of the Iraq War and the continuing prioritization of military funding. "We're looking for new ways to promote the goal of peaceful response."
Public art displays like the peacemobile may create less of a ruckus than a theater performance or a rousing cheer, but they often generate a profound response. For instance, Lars Johnson of NOWAR along with other group members gagged their mouths with the American flag and tied themselves to a cardboard tank in the center of campus, while holding a sign that read, "I waved my beloved flag until they attempted to use my patriotism to silence me." Placards listing recent violations of civil liberties surrounded the display.
Though Johnson expressed pessimism regarding his campus' level of political awareness and activity, he was happy with the way the action was received. If anything, he said, it made people stop for a moment and think.
Perhaps simply "thinking" is the most important work an activist can do right now. As the U.S. presence in Iraq drags on and international tension and uncertainty build, Hinojosa of NOWAR urges protestors to reconsider their goals and press for long-term solutions. "The crucial challenge for the peace movement lies in learning to address the deeper causes of war and other forms of institutional violence," he says.
Hinojosa suggests that we might first search for these "root causes" on an individual level, by reexamining the way we live our lives and interact in our communities. This individualization fits well with the new, unconventional protest movement, which favors small, interactive actions over mass demonstrations. Kingman of On the Ground also emphasizes that in order to see the big picture, activists should think small. "I am most inspired by the formation of smaller protest and 'direct action' groups in Chicago," he says. "These are people who are actually taking this seriously, recognizing that 'anti-war' is a lot bigger than just Iraq, making decisions and sacrifices based on their principles."
Kingman and Crotty of NOWAR demonstrate ways in which they try to work toward peace through the way they live: Kingman lives in a co-op and makes videos that incorporate political messages; Crotty writes rock and roll songs that "put in a plug for reality."
All this appears to feed the new protest movement's message that being active doesn't have to mean marching or organizing a letter-writing campaign. In fact, devising new, creative modes of subversion may ultimately better serve the cause better, while lending a more personal, meaningful approach to activism.