In the last year I have had the privilege of hearing Omotayo Jolaosho, a Rutgers University Phd candidate in the Department of Anthropology, present a lecture and later a conference paper regarding her research in South Africa. Her fieldwork looked at the aspects of performance during protests in South Africa. In one such instance, she told us about a protest in which the police were pushing back the protesters into a specific area. In return, several protesters began using dance, and the performative aspects of dance, to push back against the police and re-claim the area the police had moved them from.
On September 17, I made my way to the financial district to observe the Occupy Wall Street protests and I immediately thought of Ms. Jolaosho’s work. It becomes immediately clear that there exists a unique performative aspect to the OWS protests that is not typically present in American protests. Of course there are signs and chanting along with some marching, but there are also many performances which seem to generate a lot of attention. There is the well known drum circle, and I did observe several other bands playing. There were also a number of people, or groups of people, wearing costumes and performing. Several were dressed in “Robin Hood” costumes advocating for a tax on the exchanges taking place on Wall Street. Many people dressed in suits and performed as the role of “the 1%.” The performances that generated the most attention were certainly among the most clever.
At one point, I was confronted with two men wearing the masks of our current Presidential candidates, Romney and Obama. These men were interacting with their audience by presenting themselves as the candidates and discussing topics of relevance to the audience and the perceived hypocrisy of the political parties. Throughout this interaction the men would continuously find ways to show the two candidates as two sides of the same coin, even going as far as to say “Americans have a choice of voting for evil or eviler.”
Another performance that drew a large crowd was that of a group dressed as a baseball team named the “1% Tax Dodgers.” The play on words and Americana (“Tax Dodgers” being a reference to the the American baseball team, the Dodgers) along with their song regarding the shady tax practices of big businesses provided the group significant positive feedback.
While all this is interesting, it was one incident that I witnessed that really made me reflect on Ms. Jolaosho’s work. Chalking up sidewalks and walls is becoming a standard practice of the Occupy movement- at least in New York. As such, many protesters were writing messages in chalk on the surfaces of Zuccotti Park. During the height of the afternoon, a man, presumably an employee of the property management firm for the park, came into the park on a sidewalk sweeper (think street sweeper on a smaller scale) and began to wash away the chalk. What was interesting however was that he was not clearing the writing in a way that would be indicative of performing his normal job duties. As he drove across the plaza he aimed specifically at the areas in which people were writing at that moment, ignoring the many chalk writings between his starting point and the writers. As several writers became aware of his intention they formed a line protecting their particular writings forcing the driver into a short game of chicken. As the sweeper approached the line of protesters he turned the sweeper and pulled over to the side of the plaza having only made one pass through the drawings. Realizing they had won at the game of chicken, the protesters re-chalked some of the writings:
I began to think about performance and occupation. These protesters performed and re-occupied their writings. Furthermore, the movement itself is in a state of re-occupying, having been forced out of their encampment at Zuccotti Park nearly a year ago, through performance. There was a significant performance by the NYPD as well with hundreds of uniformed officers present and the use of attention getting equipment (riot gear and loud motorcycles.) All in all, the day gave me a lot to think about outside of the political messages on display.