Pop-Up Protests as Advent Disruption

Radical: Acts that question or re-envision ingrained social arrangements of power.

Street: Signals theatrics that take place in public by-ways with minimal constraints on access.

Performance: Expressive behavior intended for public viewing.

From Radical Street Performances, editor Jan Cohen-Cruz


On November 29th, The Washington Post used the term "pop-up protests" to describe the wave of protests since a grand jury failed to indict Darren  Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown. After a grand jury in Staten Island failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo in the murder of Eric Garner pop-up protests have morphed into "die-ins" with people placing their bodies on sidewalks, streets, intersections, and highways in mass as a means of public witness to white supremacy and a police culture that kills black men.

These die-ins/pop-up protests are radical street performances. In an improvisational, twitter-driven way, these pop-up protests pull people together who comprise a contested reality, with the prophetic hope  the social script that a black man is killed by a police officer every 2 to 3 days will be dismantled (statistic heard on the Diane Rehm show on December 8th).

Street performances like the die-ins usually take place at the very location that the performers or protesters want transformed. The public spaces like the street where Michael Brown walked and sidewalk where Eric Garner stood need transformed.

And public streets are symbolic-- that a whole culture needs transformed.

Streets are a gateway to life. They are  a passageway from one place to another, a place where people don't want to stop.  Streets are a means to work and school. Streets are home to thousands. While a street is public space it is controlled by the state or local jurisdiction.

The streets have a long history and relationship with the state as a public space to display and reassert power---think of a Presidential inaugural procession or dictators marching armies through public streets. Streets can also have the feel of belonging to nobody and belonging to everybody and streets have their own rules.

This is what I find powerful about these pop-up protests:

  • Bodies becoming a social sculpture on the ground. People intentionally place themselves  next to each other, creating a visual of death, dying and the absurdity of almost every other day public executions of black men.
  • In blocking that traffic, pop-up protests have altered the code of urban movement---protesters have blocked traffic on 395, a major highway that leads in and out of D.C. from Virginia.
  •  Bodies have traversed  lines on the road that regulate traffic (see in particular the Arlington, VA picture). Lines are going one direction, bodies are going another. Protesters bodies are re-arranging the marks that regulate urban and social landscape, bodies are disrupting the linear system of urban transportation. This has profound symbolic meaning--pop-up protests are disobedient, acts of dissidence and re-articulate meaning "we aren't going to act the way society/white supremacy demands....we are creating new forms of interaction and power."
  • The die-in on the sidewalk in D.C. subverted the accepted notion of what a sidewalk is for . This subversion creates a reaction--just ask a tourist trying to get to the White House. Being inconvenienced becomes the over-riding viewpoint.
  • The die-ins are porous, offering invitation to all who walk or drive-by.

Serene Jones, the President of Union Theological Seminary in NYC, was on the Melissa Harris-Perry show with the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis. Dr. Jones had this to say: "When we think about the central story of Christianity, it's the story of a black body being executed by the most powerful nation in the world."

In Advent, we prepare ourselves to welcome that same black body into the world, a child whose mom was a teenager herself and whose birth scared the violent shit out of Imperial Rome.

Seeing these protests as radical street performances connect me more deeply to the Advent world view---that an in-breaking of radicality is in the here and now, white privilege and supremacy are being dismantled with each body stretched across a traffic line on the street, and that black bodies aren't a threat and menacing as Mr. Wilson would like to believe but, rather, bodies are powerful, creative forces of social change that in an instant can create revolution on the streets.