The Rise of the Absurdist Protest
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because while we’re not certain this new style of protest will work, it certainly seems to be taking over.
By Mary Papenfuss
Wild Jamaican dancers, a pounding drum, and the moving, sweaty bodies of entranced strangers don’t have a whole lot to do with fossil fuel concerns, but they came together at what’s been billed as the biggest march against climate change the world has ever seen. When organizers explained to protesters thronging Central Park West last week — two miles from the start of the Manhattan march — that they were stuck because the city had run out of room on the route, no one cared. There was a Broadway-like production of singers urging demonstrators to “resist extinction,” a giant melting Earth, and preaching “Reverend Billy” of the Church of Stop Shopping to keep them on their high.
“It was a celebration,” said Russell Mendel, 29, of Earth Guardians, one of the groups that led the march. “There’s enough heaviness in the world that when we come together we need to feel power and hope. The creativity, the fun, is key, especially for my generation.”
Welcome to the evolution of protest, far from the grimly earnest, trash-cans-through-storefront-windows of the early Vietnam War demonstration era. The clashes between environmentalists and cops would come the following day when protesters occupied Wall Street to underscore corporate America’s role in global warming. But the march would be infused with the growing culture of protests: determination, certainly, but also high spirits fueled by spectacle and theatrics. “The march took it to a whole new level with an architecture profoundly influenced by artists and shaped by the sensibilities of the millennials,” noted artist activist Andrew Boyd of Manhattan, who’s part of the Beautiful Trouble network, which trains protesters.
It’s most effective when your opponent is grimly, totally moralizing. It’s an oblique attack that doesn’t engage in the same universe …
— Andrew Boyd, artist and activist
But the march is only one sign — granted, a particularly dramatic one — of a renaissance in protest tactics that notably also now includes a new age of humor, satire and absurdism. Send in the clowns. Pranksters clowned for the environment, particularly the protester dressed in a polar bear costume who offered himself up for arrest on Wall Street. But where humor and absurdism is being increasingly used most often now is on the vitriolic battlegrounds at abortion clinics and Westboro Baptist church protests.
Husband-and-wife team Grayson and Tina Haver Currin have been rattling a weekly North Carolina abortion clinic protest in a Raleigh suburb with the absurdist signs of their band of counterprotesters called Saturday Chores. Yelling is futile, so they counter “hatred with humor,” explains Tina. They pop up next to signs like “Babies are murdered here” with their own bizarre messages, including “Jesus Slays” and “Honk if You’re Horny.” The tactic has been weirdly effective at annoying protesters, who now drop their signs when Saturday Chores shows up, which Grayson considers an “important victory.” The tactics have been adopted at other clinics, including a recent demonstration at Planned Parenthood in San Francisco’s Mission District.
“It’s a sly engagement,” noted Boyd. “It’s most effective when your opponent is grimly, totally moralizing. It’s an oblique attack that doesn’t engage in the same universe, in effect doesn’t recognize the power or even the existence of other side, and it’s totally infuriating to be mocked.”
Similar strategies are increasingly being used against viciously anti-gay Westboro demonstrations. When members of the Kansas church launched its “God Hates the Media” protest this month outside Huffington Post offices in Manhattan, workers responded in full-absurdist regalia. “Weird news” editors dressed like SpongeBob, a penguin and a yeti hoisting signs “I Need a Sponge Bath,” “Penguins Go to Heaven” and “God Loves Bigfoot.”
Though some Dadaist rebel clowns trace their lineage to court jesters, more recent role models include the “culture jamming” Yes Men, Billionaires for Bush, Yippie Abbie Hoffman, Act Up and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence: gays and drag queens who began dressing as glammed-up nuns in the late 1970s to confront the Catholic Church, hell-raise for attention to battle AIDS, and advocate for gay rights and other issues. “By then we had all seen the marches and the signs. You need to switch things up,” explained Sister Zsa Zsa Glamour, née Mark Klein, 58, of San Francisco.
While some Sisters don the garb simply to be provocative, for Klein to “put on the habit, it’d better be a fucking good reason; I’m not fooling around.” Now he believes rather than simply raising a chuckle, “we have to put fear into the people we’re opposing.” He advocates tailing Westboro members and organizing boycotts of the airlines, hotels and restaurants they use.
For now, activist Matthew Hill, 29, is sticking with absurdist humor. He was hoisting an unusual sign at the climate march: “I See Cognitive Dissonance Everywhere,” which was supposed to be some kind of play off of “I see dead people” from The Sixth Sense. “I try to be offbeat. That’s what sticks in your mind,” explained Hill, who rarely encounters a protest he doesn’t like. “Climate change is serious, but you don’t have to be serious when you confront it. None of us gets out of here alive, do we? We might as well have some fun while we can.”
- Mary Papenfuss, OZY Author Contact Mary Papenfuss