Moving in Solidarity: Thinking through the Physicality of Recent Protests

Meghan Quinlan and Natalie Zervou


Choreographed as a dialogue, this essay engages with the choreopolitics1  of recent protest in the US, such as Black Lives Matter, Women’s Marches, and popular uprisings in response to the Immigrant Bans.2  After a brief historicization of protests and a comparative analysis of the efficacy of several iconic protests, we focus on analyzing the form of current protests and explore the different modes of embodiment and corporeal agency that each of them promotes. Through this exercise, our intent is to raise questions about the politics of participation in these events, to consider the different modes of collective action, and to start a conversation about possible next steps for those interested in joining this dialogue.

Figure 1: Poster from available for free download

MQ: The signs that have been distributed by the ACLU for the recent trend of protests declare that “DISSENT IS PATRIOTIC:” a reminder that active citizenship through the form of protest should be encouraged. This concept of civic responsibility stems from early ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, who in Politics argues that to be a citizen, one has to be actively involved in the governing process. The precise form that civic engagement has taken throughout history has varied by time and place, but there has been a constant trend of protest when masses of people feel that their rulers - elected or self-appointed - aren’t serving them. Some of these protests are radical and jumpstart political revolutions.

Growing up in New England, every year we would inevitably hear about the Boston Tea Party in our history classes and how brave this revolutionary act was. Revolutionary protests and subsequent wars have taken place in most countries’ histories, ranging from European nations such as France to formerly colonized areas such as India and Algeria. Of course, protests are not always the start of a radical rejection of colonizers or political regimes. Most recently, we have seen protests such as the Occupy movement reject trends in global capital and economics, and peaceful protests have frequently been held throughout history to reject specific aspects of a country’s social or political framework without intending to overhaul the entire system, such as the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement in the United States. I mention this because although I do think the recent outburst of protests and marches following the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States are extraordinary for their amount and frequency in direct reaction against this new administration, these events also follow a long history of political dissent both in the US and globally.

NZ: Indeed, there is a long history of protests and it is fascinating to observe the different kinds of collective actions that are manifesting nowadays as opposed to the past, as well as to look comparatively at the differences between protests in the US and in other parts of the world. I grew up in Greece, where protests and popular uprisings are a very common occurrence. Especially in the last decade (since 2008)3  Greece has often made international headlines due to social unrest or extended protests and riots against austerity measures during the financial crisis. Having recently attended the Women’s March in Madison, Wisconsin here in the US I found myself mentally noting differences and similarities. Most of the recent protests that you referenced above, especially the Occupy movement that was a global occurrence, shared a very similar form, which was rather static compared to protests that took place in the mid and late twentieth century.4

For instance, in the iconic 1960 Greensboro sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, the protesters embodied the action they were protesting against, as well as occupied the space of the cafeteria. They actually positioned their bodies in a space that was prohibited to them. A similar performative type of protest occurred in the late 1980s in various urban locales through the US, where a series of protesters staged die-ins in order to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic.5 Contrary to the Greensboro sit-ins, the die-ins were staged outside with people lying on the pavement of busy streets. While some protest participants were lying down others would walk around them and trace the shape of their bodies with a chalk, so that when the protesters moved on to the next site there would be traces of their action left behind. There was also a third level of symbolism, as some protesters positioned paper tombstones next to the people on the ground.6

These highly performative examples of protests from the past that embody the very thing they are protesting against, or raising awareness for, contrast the rather stagnant nature of gatherings such as Occupy, or the Women’s March, and the Immigration Ban protests. On the other hand, I think that Black Lives Matter protests did have a more performative element to them, and symbolically incorporated gestures, such as the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” protests in Ferguson. It seems that the current protests - such as the Women’s March and the Immigrant Ban protests-  are more concerned with the number of people showing up to show support, as opposed to drawing performative analogies to the cause. This of course also directly relates to the topics being protested, where the purpose is to demonstrate that there are large groups of people opposing policies that the new presidency is trying to impose. 

MQ: Yes! The fact that most of the current protests are frequently taking very traditional, unimaginative forms is indeed striking, and has political significance. The creativity initiated in these events is most present on the signs created by the protestors. One of my favorite parts of the day of the march was scrolling through the pictures friends posted of signs from the marches in DC, New York, LA, and elsewhere - notably, these were almost all static images because no movement was necessary to capture the importance of the event. There were also some creative chants that got increasingly silly as the day went on: near the end of the march in Atlanta, where I attended, the crowd started chanting: “He’s orange, he’s gross, he lost the popular vote!” In spite of the creativity that informed the signs and chants, however, the movement of the bodies relied only on the significance of a mass of people moving from one place to another. The form of this movement - the basic walking motion - rarely included any sort of imaginative gesture, and was not visually exciting or particularly inventive.

Figure 2: A creative poster featuring fuzzy appliques seen in Atlanta. Photo by Meghan Quinlan

In contrast to these large-scale protests that are getting the attention of mass media, however, there have been several notable examples of more vivacious, danced protests. One example happened just days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, when a group of LGBTQIA protestors and their allies held a dance party outside of now-Vice President Mike Pence’s home in DC. Although the dancers did not perform an iconic dance form - like the protests of the Toyi-Toyi dance in South Africa under Apartheid - the use of glitter, rainbow iconography, and booty shaking were all prevalent in the videos and photos shared through social media from the event. This event was organized by a group called WERK for Peace, that emerged following the PULSE Orlando nightclub shootings on June 12, 2016. The group is the product of a queer-based grassroots movement that describes itself on its Facebook page as “a group of queer activists who believe that the dance floor should be a safe space where all of us, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can love and express ourselves” and uses dance to promote messages of peace and social justice.

The progressive, dance-centric nature of these breakthrough events such as the dance party protest organized by WERK for Peace gained a lot of interest and social media circulation, particularly among my networks of queer folks and dance scholars, but not nearly as much mass media coverage as the more large-scale protests such as the Women’s March or the protests following the Immigration Ban. I’m wondering whether or not this has to do with the size of the events, who is aware of or interested in participating in such events, or media broadcaster’s comfortability with portraying and discussing queer initiatives that subvert social norms.

NZ: You raise a very interesting point here, about  how such smaller scale protests are not gaining enough momentum for similar media coverage to the other protests that have a bigger mass of people. I think it is important here to consider how or what are the elements that contribute towards building a momentum and how these may also tie into the nature of the protest. For instance, it seems that if there is a large mass of people, it is easier, or more manageable to hold a march or occupy the space. On the contrary, when the participants are fewer in numbers it lends itself to more creative modes, such as dancing -seen in WERK- or flash-mobs (as events held prior to the election demonstrated - in support for Hillary Clinton for instance).7 I think this ties back to the history of protests noted above. The ones that were more creative in form, such as the sit-ins and the die-ins, both share the characteristic of being smaller in scale compared to other protests that have also left a historical mark such as the 1999 WTO Seattle protest. There, the media attention focused primarily on numbers as well as on a smaller group of people holding hands in solidarity with one-another through what appear to be tubes, thus giving the illusion of an unbreakable, continuous bond between the protesters.

I think such initiatives, that momentarily bring together a group of people who were strangers prior to this occurrence - be it a break out group at the side of a bigger protest, or a smaller scale protest - foster more creative ways of engaging with public space, and seem to foster a tighter sense of community. They tend to be less diverse than mass protest and a lot more specific in the messages they are advocating for. Of course this is not to say that larger scale protests completely lack a sense of community, as participants are united by a common cause, but that the logistics of smaller protests make it easier to meet most of the people protesting. In large scale protests, such as the Women’s March, I think a sense of a close knit community is primarily fostered through social media. For instance, in preparation of the march in Madison, the official Facebook page of the event became a forum for people from rural areas to organize car-pools in order to attend the march, which exemplifies the kinds of collectivity and relationality that are being formed.

To turn to your point about the coverage of media, it seems that smaller scale protests, because of their performative character, are more apt to becoming viral and being shared through social media primarily as opposed to being covered by mainstream media and being televised. An example that comes to mind is a series of Tweets documenting the experience of a Native American woman at the Women’s March in DC and the discrimination she faced due to being dressed in full regalia.  The tweets became viral, reaching over 9000 shares on Twitter,8 yet the mainstream media did not give attention to such issues faced by minorities in the protest.

Social media also plays a pivotal role in organizing these protests, which may partially explain why it is easier for smaller-scale protests to circulate in that platform. I think the power of social media in this regard became especially clear in response to the Immigrant Ban, as activists utilized the platform to arrange an impromptu rally that was deemed an “Emergency Protest”. Supporters were summoned last minute and many of the protesters who attended put their bodies at risk as the protest had not been previously approved and granted permits by local authorities.

MQ: The idea of putting bodies at risk is really interesting, particularly in light of the conversations following the Women’s March about the lack of violence and altercations with police throughout the events across the country. The reasons for this are complicated, and somewhat dependent on the location. For instance, a video of predominantly white female protestors high-fiving a line of black police officers in the Atlanta march went viral as an example of how protestors should interact with police.9 As a participant in this particular march, I can affirm that the relationship between the protestors and those watching over the march - ranging from the local Atlanta Police Department and the state police force as well as EMTs on standby - was overwhelmingly positive. Yet, this may be a tribute to Atlanta’s community policing initiatives over the past 5-6 years more so than the actions of the protestors. I was speaking to a long-time resident of East Atlanta during the march who observed that this was not uncommon during recent protests in Atlanta. Even during the Black Lives Matter protests, he observed, there were no instances of widespread violence between the protestors and the police. Especially in instances of protests subject to public scrutiny, an attitude of de-escalation seems to be at the forefront of the current Atlanta police model.10  Thus, it’s not surprising to see that this particular video went viral.

But the specificity of Atlanta’s relationship between police and protests is not the reason for the lack of violence at the other marches around the country (and the world). Though the fact that no one was arrested during any of these marches was widely celebrated as a success, to phrase this as a positive outcome and praise the protestors (and the police) for this is actually really complicated. Some have attributed it to the fact that the march had a significant outpouring of white women, and that police have traditionally reacted to this demographic with less force than other populations such as people of color.

There were also many families in attendance at these events with small children. The organizing of the marches stressed non-violent, family-friendly atmospheres, and the resulting actions by the protestors and the police charged with looking over the events reacted accordingly. Strikingly, we’ve seen similar demographics and outcomes in the large-scale protests at airports in response to Trump’s executive order issuing a travel ban on immigrants and refugees, including valid green-card holders (which has since been overturned). Unique to these Immigration Ban events that often did not have permits or express permission from the city or police, however, many organizers urged protesters to only attend the event if they hold active citizenship to protest non-citizens from deportation or other legal repercussions that could result from a potential arrest. So although we often see a stronger sense of community in the smaller protests mentioned above, like the die-ins or the WERK for Peace events, there seems to be a growing sense of community in these larger calls to protest, and a serious effort from people with privilege to use their status to protect those more susceptible to legal harm. I’m curious to see how far this sense of community extends beyond the borders of the protests, however.

Figure 3: A family with two girls attending the Women’s March in Madison. Photo by Natalie Zervou

NZ: I observed a very similar demographic to the one you are describing above in the Women’s March in Madison: lots of families with their children, elderly people, some University students and many professors, which may have to do with the fact that the protest actually started at the edge of the UW Madison campus. Before we get into demographics however, I would like to focus on the point that you raised in regard to legal and physical harm. As a non US citizen myself, I must admit that I was a little nervous to attend the Women’s March, especially after having read about protesters from Canada being turned away from the US border.11 My choice to go made me hyperaware of police presence, which in Madison was very minimal. In contrast to Atlanta, I did not notice any interactions between police and protesters; the two just quietly coexisted. My position as an outsider furthermore made me hyperaware of the way that everyone around me carried themselves as I consciously tried to blend in and not call attention to myself. Although it was the Women’s March and most people around me held signs with feminist words of support, I noticed that quite a few people held signs noting equality not just among men, women, or the LGBTQIA community, but also noting equality with immigrants and people across various religions. 

At some instances during the march people around me chanted “No Hate, No Fear, Everyone Is Welcome Here”, which I later heard again during the Immigrant Ban marches. But at the time it fostered a soothing sense of belonging, albeit being an outsider and being hyperaware of my legal precarity in case of an encounter with police. This sense of momentary belonging was abruptly interrupted when one person in our group saw some friends of theirs a few steps ahead and started yelling to them in Greek, so they would wait for us to join them. I felt all the people around me briefly pause and stare and heard some whispering comments behind me noting how “this guy just started yelling in a different language”. The uneasiness quickly dissipated as we soon found ourselves surrounded by different people that had not witnessed that encounter and I started to feel at ease again.

Figure 4: Example of a poster supporting equality seen at the Women’s March in Madison. Photo by Natalie Zervou

I am sharing this anecdote, because I was really interested in the contrast between legal and physical harm that you pointed out above, and would like to suggest that instead of harm, maybe we should think of it as legal and physical precarity instead. When one makes the choice to attend a protest they don’t immediately set themselves up for harm, but they enter a sphere of uncertainty that can either have physical implications (in instances of violent altercations) or legal implications (in instances of being arrested, especially when one is not a citizen) both of which are exercised on one’s body. Physical violence incurs wounds and impacts one’s health, while being arrested is a constraining of one’s body.

In the Women’s Marches instances of either were very rare, whereas in some of the other protests that we have discussed here, such as Black Lives Matter, the two occur more often.

MQ: This concept of precarity you presented when it comes to protesting is really interesting to consider, especially in light of the differences between these recent protests and the Black Lives Matter protests from 2014 to the present. I wonder if the type or level of precarity differs based on the demographic, organization, purpose, and intention of these various forms of protest, because of course we saw drastically different outcomes in terms of violence between the Black Lives Matter protests and the post-Trump protests. Though both efforts are ostensibly protesting for justice, equality, and life, we saw Black Lives Matter protests reacting to the deaths of black community members at the hands of police, whereas the Women’s March and even the protests against the Immigration Ban were working primarily against legal violence and impending physical restrictions rather than immediate bodily harm.12 Although for those directly impacted by the Immigration Ban, it’s arguable that they too experienced direct violence, albeit not death as a direct result of the government’s immediate actions. Though everyone’s bodies are theoretically on the line, in precarious legal or physical circumstances, some instances are more direct than others. I think this corporeal recognition of proximity to precarious conditions - and thus, urgency to protect the lives of oneself or others -  must be considered when understanding the form of the protests.

Before continuing with an unpacking of these differences, though, I do want to recognize the problematic schema this might set up vis a vis intersectionality. In recognizing the differing situations of precarity in Black Lives Matter protests versus the various large-scale marches after Trump’s inauguration, I do not mean to suggest that these protestors are entirely different populations, or protesting entirely unrelated issues. As Martin Luther King Jr. originally stated, and many posters and social media posts have reaffirmed as of late, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”13  In spite of a theoretical recognition of the intersectionality of these efforts, however, the reality of who showed up and why remains striking. The Black Lives Matter protests have been predominantly organized and attended by black folks, with very few white and other non-black allies in attendance. As a result, in spite of the efforts made by organizers to make the recent anti-Trump protests more diverse and intersectional, many black folks have intentionally stayed at home and others vocally chastised the hordes of white women now showing up wearing pink pussy hats. A striking poster that was circulated widely via social media following the Women’s march, for instance, stated: “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next #blacklivesmatter march, right?” (Though, of course, some argue that Black Lives Matter protests should not be overrun by white allies because this doesn’t necessarily progress the actual agenda.)14 This is a pointed reference to a broader trend, where marginalized communities have traditionally been acutely aware of intersectionality and have showed up to work against injustice, whereas this is often a rare occurrence for privileged folks, such as the many middle class white women who were fired up to knit “pussy hats.” Thus, while the recent mass protests have become increasingly diverse, especially during the Immigrant Ban protests, I think it’s important to think through why we see this broader diversity of folks showing up now.

I think the Women’s March jumpstarted a new atmosphere for protesting, that was family friendly and nonviolent. It became chic and fun to be politically active. This is not to demean the important work the protesters and organizers are doing; it’s great that they’re (we’re) showing up now. But what I’m trying to get at is that there is not so much fear of putting one’s body on the line, although the policies one is protesting would potentially do just that. Whereas the Black Lives Matter protests were reacting against real, immediate violence at the hands of police as well as histories and futures of systemic racism and institutional violence, the current protests are reacting against either new or future policies. They are similarly rooted in long histories of misogyny and xenophobia, but the problems being confronted do not involve watching a friend get shot right in front of you. There is a removal from the violence, whether it is physical, legal, or cultural. And I think this impacts who feels comfortable showing up to march and protest, and also how they embody this civic participation.

NZ: You raised a lot of issues here and each could branch out into a whole new dialogue. The one thing that stood out to me the most however, was the distinction you drew between the temporality of the protests, and how Black Lives Matter is in a sense about events that occurred in the past and the fear / anxiety to prevent them from recurring in the future, whereas the Women’s March was almost like a proactive protest in order to state opposition to the policies that the government plans to enforce in the future. These distinct temporalities I think likewise affected both the physicality of the protests, as well as the demeanor of the protesters. First and foremost, I think we should consider the ‘body’ that is being protested, which I believe also reinforces your point on intersectionality.

Black Lives Matter protests were organized in response to deaths of black community members in the hands of police. Thus the bodies that protesters are advocating for are lifeless at the moment when the protests are happening. These bodies once attempted to surrender (“Hands Up Don’t Shoot”) or were helpless (“I can’t breathe”) and are no longer in a position to fight for themselves. Protestors advocating for those who have been killed are inspired by fear of having the same thing happen to them, and indignation for the disregard of human life, which attributes a more solemn and serious atmosphere to the protests. Of course they are outraged, and the signs they are holding in the demonstrations communicate this anger and demand justice.

On the contrary, in the Women’s March, the bodies that are at stake are very much alive and have the option to defend themselves, which is why they are out on the streets advocating for their rights. It is true that the nature of the imposed violence in this case is legal as opposed to physical and this changes the demeanor of the protestors. Since many of the policies that were protested in regards to women’s reproductive rights and access to healthcare at the Women’s March had at the time not been enforced the “threat” was still rather hypothetical, which I think explains the relatively relaxed and humorous approach, as demonstrated by the signs.

Figure 5: Beyond the humorous approach to signs, some people also carried humorous props, such as this man holding an umbrella referencing the “golden shower” seen at the Women’s March in Madison. Photo by Natalie Zervou

MQ: The case of the Immigrant Ban protests was similarly forward looking, although some of the people protesting could also have been impacted by this ban had they happened to be abroad at the time that this executive order was handed down. So although some of the threats were currently being enacted, everything was still in limbo: how strictly it would be enforced, would it be removed, and so on. The result of the ban's actions were also not so definite, like being shot. Rather, it marked the beginning of long legal battles and questions over the rights and needs of both refugees and immigrants more broadly. Thus, the "violence" was still to some degree hypothetical or forward-looking, at least for the protestors and not those temporarily held in airports over the weekend of January 27, 2017. Additionally, it was interesting that many calls to protest over that weekend suggested that only full US citizens take action, so as to protect those that may be vulnerable to this ban or other police action, so the bodies protesting were another step removed from the immediacy of this political action.

NZ: This idea of bodies being made vulnerable and requiring other bodies to protect them, or stand up for them, reminds me another distinction between the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter: the use of a gesture that was observed in the Ferguson protests, yet was absent from many of the marches. In some Black Lives Matter protest there was a distinct gesture that many protesters adopted, which mirrored the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” slogan. Their arms were raised on the sides, bent at the elbow with their palms facing forward. As dance scholar Anusha Kedhar points out in her article discussing the Ferguson protest:

“this gesture pleads with its spectator: I am innocent. I am unarmed. I am not a threat. I surrender. I submit. Submission and fear have become embedded in the black body, a part of its daily habitus.15 [...] Young black men and women in the U.S. learn this gesture of surrender and submission early on when dealing with police. Black parents teach their children that if they get pulled over, for example, they should move slowly and deliberately and dictate their actions to the officer, offering a kind of play-by-play of their body’s movements.”
— Kedhar 2014

What this gesture achieves, is manifold. It signifies non-violence, while at the same time commenting on the violence exercised on black bodies. It challenges the authorities that are policing the protest to respond, and through doing so it is a way for the protesters to claim space.

In the Women’s March on the other hand we do not witness a similar collective embodiment of a gesture. The demographic of this protest instead engaged in a collective pre-protest embodied activity: the knitting of the “pussy hats”, a symbolic act of resistance that happened behind closed doors and its result was paraded on the streets. 

MQ: The pre-protest labor of knitting hats you mention here is really fascinating for several reasons. First, it speaks to the demographic of people participating in the march: people who have the spare time and resources to produce these garments (and, often, brought extras to share with others who did not have this kind of time or resource). Second, the skill required to create these hats via knitting or crocheting is a stereotypically female activity, passed down through generations.16 Third, only the product of this pre-protest labor is celebrated. This mimics the history of invisibilizing and disregarding female labor. Even though this activity ends with a tangible product - unlike so much domestic labor that often falls outside of traditional conversations on economics and labor17 - it is given away, which diminishes the potential for valuing in a clear way the work done to produce this object. Ultimately, the fact that the symbol of the Women’s March was an arguably silly pink hat is fitting for those that recognize how the circulation of this image falls in line with so many problematic histories and stereotypes of white, middle class women. This object, although serving an important function of keeping people warm while protesting in cold January weather, appeared to critics to be ridiculous and superfluous because of the use of the stereotypically “girly” color of pink and the aesthetic addition of “ears” to the hat that serve no practical function. It is the product of a crafting activity, which could be seen as a hobby, and thus non-vital or not directly related to economic production. This kind of domestic or leisurely labor has traditionally been ignored in male-dominated economies and understandings of traditionally female labor. While I appreciate the work done by these activists to take seriously an image that has been critiqued as less important - the product of a traditionally female craft in a stereotypically feminine color - I fear that the histories of labor and leisure that I see as clear messages coming from these symbols are being overlooked by critics. Additionally, I wonder how this impacts women for whom knitting is not a familial norm, or who may not have the time or resources to create these hats in the days leading up to the protest, or for women whose “pussies” are not accurately represented by a bright pink color.

NZ: What about the impact the symbol of a sexual organ has for trans- or gender non-binary folks who identify as women but may not have this particular body part? Why did the symbol of this march have to align sex with gender? Doesn’t that alienate many of the supporters and participants in the march? 

MQ: Exactly! The icon of the “pussy” hat is effective, and a nicely pointed jab at Trump’s claims about being able to grab women’s genitalia at will, but it ultimately equates woman-hood with the possession of specific body parts. American legislators may not view this as a problem – as the continued introduction of anti-trans policies such as restricting gender-appropriate bathroom and locker room access for trans-folks demonstrates – but there are many people who identify as women but may not have breasts or a vagina. For the march to truly be inclusive, and support the vast variety of folks supporting women’s causes, it would have been ideal to have a symbol less obviously equating sex with gender. Though I do not believe this “pussy hat” movement was meant to be offensive or divisive, it does indicate a mainstream approach to womanhood that sits most easily with folks new to social activism such as middle aged white women and families, who came out in strong numbers for the Women’s Marches.

Figure 6: A photo of posters taken at the Atlanta Women’s March, featuring a more inclusive stance (“Y’all means ALL”) and another equation of female empowerment tied to sexual organs (“Come and Take It” paired with the image of a uterus). Photo by Meghan Quinlan

NZ: I can affirm this hypothesis from my experience attending the Madison Women’s March, where the demographic of people who showed up was primarily white middle class women and men, as you mentioned above. There were parents with their young children (anywhere from infants to toddlers and young adults), and many people for whom this was their first protest. This evidences an assumption of safety, and I think through this assumption it demonstrates a stark contradiction to the habitus of people of color as noted earlier, in the extensive quote by Kedhar about the Black Lives Matter protests.

Following up on the point of gesture and the pre-protest labor, I would like to entertain one more analogy to look at the differences between Black Lives Matter and the Women’s Marches, which is the lens of choreography. In dance scholarship it is commonly noted how choreography is the act of writing in space through movement. I think that the lens of choreography is very applicable to look at protests, since they do precisely that, inscribe meaning in space, through the agency of the bodies that are present in that space. Thinking of the gestures observed in Black Lives Matter protests through the framework of choreography shows a carefully premeditated process and an awareness of the symbolic value that this embodied action holds.

On the contrary, in the Women’s March there was no unifying gesture or characteristic, and in many instances it wasn’t even a march. Here in Madison there were quite a few moments of stillness and a large group of people, including me, had to deviate from the main street that connected the meeting point with the Capitol, that was considered the ‘end point’. This was due to the large crowd that already spread all the way from the meeting point to the Capitol since well before the march even started. The same observation was made by a friend, who attended the march in Washington D.. When I asked her what her experience was, the first thing she noted was “Well, it wasn’t really a march, because you had half a million people on the streets, so there was limited mobility and no actual walking”. As such, it seems that the Women’s Marches were more closely modelled after the Occupy movement, which focused on occupation of space, rather than moving through space.  

MQ: Yes, the marching aspect of this particular protest was striking. The motion of bodies moving from one place to another is deeply symbolic of change, and thus a fitting form for this protest against regressive policies towards women. But the failures to actually march became the most interesting moments to me during that day. I remember waiting in the still crowd of protesters in downtown Atlanta, after the brass band had taken off down the street. Though movement had begun, it was at such a slow pace that even after the music was no longer audible we still had not begun marching. While waiting for the movement to begin in my section of the crowd, we started to look at news from other protests, such as Chicago where so many people showed up that there was no room to march. By necessity because of overcrowding on their planned route, the Chicago protesters had to remain still rather than march. Though corporeally this suggests a lack of progress, politically the mass of people signals a strong movement for change.

Looking up from my phone, as the march began in earnest back in Atlanta, I decided to stay still as the crowd progressed to meet up with some friends who were further back in the mass of people. Almost an hour later, they caught up. Though frustrating in the moment to stay still as others moved forward, by remaining in place I was able to admire the full scope of the numbers and ranges of people attending the event. I was reminded of André Lepecki’s discussion of stillness as politically important for challenging the contemporary focus on movement, both in dance and perhaps our modern existence,18  and Jacques Rancière’s claim that it is these moments of rupture to plans or the norm that are truly political.19  Although I’m not sure this has a single answer, I am curious about what form of protest is truly most effective. I am still partial to protests that take a more unique corporeal form - such as the twerking at WERK for Peace’s dance party to welcome Mike Pence to the LGBTQIA community, or the throwing of tea into the harbor during the American Revolution - but perhaps it’s not possible to get huge masses of people together for corporeal action beyond the familiar of standing or walking. There are also often restrictions on movement and the spaces that can be used, both culturally and legally, so perhaps the very act of marching at all in an era of increased questioning on the limitations on free speech (such as the limited “free speech zones”20  on campuses) is powerful in its own right. 

NZ: I agree, beyond the logistics of having a large mass of people move through space, there is also the performative aspect of protests such as WERK that may not be accessible to everyone or may be something that makes people uncomfortable. I observed a lot of instances of smaller groups dancing in various protests across the US, such as in Oakland, Washington DC, where there was an indigenous dance circle, and I know that there was a flash mob at the beginning of the protest in Madison. This goes to show that such initiatives also take place in larger protests, yet tend to involve smaller groups of people. Once the March started, there was a group of people on the side of the road shortly before the Capitol playing uplifting jazz music, which attracted people, who would momentarily pause either to listen to the music or enter the small dance circle that had formed right in front of them, thus creating a constant flow of new dancers. I have been wondering for a while about the role that dance plays in such small gatherings in the context of larger scale protests. This is an occurrence that I have never witnessed in Greece, although protests are very common there. On the contrary, I think that in the US dancing at protests is a more common occurrence, often encountered in the form of drum-circles, flash-mobs, or casual dancing on the side of the street. Such casual dance encounters serve to diffuse tension and depending on the nature of the protest may also serve a celebratory function. In either case, they offer alternative ways to claim public space.

Closing Thoughts

In closing this discussion we are still wondering about the efficacy of all the initiatives discussed above. Collective action and activism seem to be the primary tools at the hands of the people to show their opposition, yet how do they influence the course of events? Moving forward we are left with more questions than answers, as the embodiments of the various political uprisings discussed here are intended to inspire a conversation about the form and function of activism in the contemporary moment. What can we learn from the form these protests are taking? What might organizers want to consider in the future about how their message comes across depending on the shape that the event takes? What effect do protests that engage dance– such as WERK for Peace or the use of traditional Native American protest dances – have on claiming public space? Would protests be more effective if they always adhered to laws and social norms about where and when to occur, or should activists continue pushing the boundaries of designated protest spaces and times? Our hope is that this work, and the questions raised here, will prompt others to expand this dialogue into a larger conversation and continue engaging with embodied action.

1. “Choreopolitics” is a term coined by André Lepecki in his (2013) article titled Choreopolice and Choreopolitics or the task of the dancer. He defines choreopolitics as the act of moving freely and of “imagining and enacting a politics of movement” (Lepecki 2003, 15). back to text

2. The term Immigrant Ban will be used throughout this article to refer to the executive order titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” signed by Donald Trump on January 27, 2017. It has been colloquially referred to as the “Immigrant Ban” or “Immigration Ban” and the “Muslim Ban” in spite of official attempts to suggest that this is not a “ban” of any kind. A federal appeals panel in California has since upheld rulings made by lower courts suspending the ban. At the time of writing, the current administration is still discussing the impending release of a similar executive order.    back to text

3. The financial crisis that initiated a series of protests against austerity broke out in Greece in 2009. However, the country had made headlines for one of the longest riots (3 weeks consecutively) in 2008 in response to the shooting of a high school student by a police officer. back to text

4. The stillness of the Occupy protests and its juxtaposition to the rapid movement of global capitalism was discussed in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s 2012 text, Declaration.

  back to text

5. [1] The die-ins were organized by an advocacy group called ACT UP, an acronym for “AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power”. The organization was founded in March 1987. back to text

6. A detailed description and analysis of these protests can be found in Susan Leigh Foster’s (2003) article Choreographies of Protest. back to text

7. An example of such a flashmob is the “Pant-Suit Power Flashmob for Hillary”, that took place on October 2, 2016 with over 200 participants wearing pantsuits. As the link to their official video, which went viral, notes, the event was organized to promote “unity, love, and inclusivity.” ("OFFICIAL "PANTSUIT POWER" FLASH MOB FOR HILLARY.", accessed 02/21/2017) back to text

8. The tweets were published in January 23, 2017 by Twitter user hokte. ( , accessed February 17, 2017) back to text

9. The video was originally shared on the City of Atlanta Police Department Facebook page, and was the subject of several articles and news segments in national media. There are also similar videos taken by individuals which have circulated in news about the event.  A story about the video going viral can be seen in the Atlanta Journal Constitution blog here: back to text

10. This is not to say there have been no instances of police violence in Atlanta. In fact, on January 26, 2017 an unarmed black man named Deaundre Phillips was shot by Atlanta Police and the killing is currently under investigation. However, community police initiatives have been frequently employed in Atlanta with great success, thus lowering police violence and maintaining public peace especially during protests. back to text

11. An article documenting this incident can be found in The Washington Post titled “Canadian Traveling to Women's March Said He Was Turned Away at the U.S. Border” (accessed February 07, 2017) back to text

12. Instances of violence exercised by authorities against protestors were also frequently seen at the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) Protest. In writing this article we decided not to include extensive references to DAPL protests, because of the local specificity of the protests that are primarily taking place on the construction site of the pipeline. Our article instead focuses on protests that are organized across a variety of different urban centers in the US and globally, and explores the modes of embodiment across these various iterations as well as the recurring trends observed throughout these urban protests. While the DAPL protests are rich with sources for further analysis of the dancing and embodiment of political resistance, the scope of this article was not wide enough to do justice to the specificities and histories of this movement. back to text

13. From Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963) back to text

14. The question of the role of white allies in Black Lives Matter protests is controversial. While some call for increased attendance at these events, especially in roles where one's privilege can protect black folks such as creating barriers between police and black protestors, others have critiqued white activists for wanting to be seen protesting but not do actual work as allies. Several articles and think-pieces have emerged with to-do lists for white allies, and what actions are most beneficial for supporting black folks and the work of Black Lives Matter. While the complexities of the Black Lives Matter protests are a bit outside of the scope of this particular piece of writing, it is important to note that the protests following Trump’s inauguration continue to raise questions about how to be truly intersectional in one's politics and actions, both in the form of corporeal protesting and daily actions/interactions. One would hope that this political movement activates support for the existing work done by Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups working for justice and equality, whether that is through showing up for these protests or supporting and working for the causes in other ways. back to text

15. The term habitus is a concept coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his (1977) work Outline of a Theory of Practice, where he defines it as follows: “The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively regulated and regular without in any way being the product of obedience to rules […] Even as they appear as the realization of the explicit, and explicitly stated, purposes of a project or plan, the practices produced by the habitus, as the strategy generating principle enabling agents to cope with unforeseen and ever changing situations […]” (Bourdieu 1977, 72) back to text

16. This is not a skill that is often taught at schools; and while it can be self-taught through instructional videos or manuals, in my experience it always requires some in-person tutelage to truly succeed. I remember learning to knit as a child, and my grandmother had to be present to help fix my many mistakes as I started out. Though knitting is not exclusively passed down through familial channels, establishing a community through knitting either in familial or social contexts is common. Historically, knitting groups have come together to produce garments for soldiers or the economically disadvantaged, or teach knitting to women who need a source of income. Thus, the act of knitting hats infers that many of the participants have (or have had in the past) close family connections or an otherwise supportive atmosphere to explore this activity. Similar to having the time and money to knit hats, this connotation of support leading up to acquiring the skill infers that the participants are predominantly middle class and community-oriented. back to text

17. Domestic and traditionally “feminine” labor such as child-rearing often falls outside of capitalist theories of economics because there are no tangible products that can circulate and establish a clear “use-value” to establish financial value in a market system. This is particularly true of Marx’s early theories of capital and labor. While cultural theorists such as Raymond Williams have critiqued this disavowal of domestic and/or “feminine” labor (1980), these academic critiques have not necessarily changed the dominant understanding of the value and labor of domestic or craft activities as being labor or producing something of value in an economic sense. back to text

18. In his 2006 text Exhausting Dance, Andre Lepecki, argues that stillness in dance is extremely significant. Though his arguments are primarily directed at how stillness disrupts the expectations for dance – which is so rooted in movement in modern dance history – his claim extends to a broader conceptualization of stillness as a powerful way to revolt against the constant forward motion that characterizes modernity. This is not dissimilar from the analysis of stillness offered by Hardt and Negri (2012) in relation to the Occupy movement.  back to text

19. These ruptures are what he calls “dissensus” (Rancière 2015) back to text

20. Free speech zones” are also sometimes called “First Amendment zones” or “protest zones.” They refer to areas set aside in public spaces that are for the purpose of public protesting (thus inferring that protest elsewhere would not be acceptable or permitted). While there has been renewed debate about the legality of these spaces, particularly on college campuses, there is a long precedent for this policy in many circumstances, such as outside of political conventions and surrounding Presidential travel. They are perhaps most well known for being enforced during protests against the Vietnam War on college campuses. back to text

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. 

"Canadian Traveling to Women's March Said He Was Turned Away at the U.S. Border." The Washington Post. Accessed February 05, 2017.

Foster, Susan Leigh. 2003. "Choreographies of Protest." in Theatre Journal 55, no. 3: 395-412. doi:10.1353/tj.2003.0111.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2012. Declaration. Argo-Navis. Kindle edition.

hokte tweets, (Jan. 23, 2017) Accessed February 17, 2017

Kedhar, Anusha. 2014. “"Hands Up! Don't Shoot!": Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson." The Feminist Wire. October 04. Accessed February 02, 2017.

King Jr., Martin Luther. Apr. 16, 1963. “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. African Studies Center. University of Pennsylvania n.d. Accessed Feb. 27, 2017.

Lepecki, André. 2013 Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: or, the task of the dancer in TDR: The Drama Review, Volume 57, Number 4, Winter 2013 (T220), pp. 13-27

Lepecki, André.  2006. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. New York: Routledge. 

"OFFICIAL "PANTSUIT POWER" FLASH MOB FOR HILLARY." Vimeo. February 21, 2017. Accessed February 21, 2017.

Rancière, Jacques. 2015. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. New York: Bloomsbury.

Rohne, Nedra. 2017. “Video of Women’s march protestors thanking Atlanta Police goes viral” My AJC from The Atlanta Journal Constitution. January 23, 2017. Accessed February 27, 2017.

Williams, Raymond. 1980. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. London: Verso. 31-49.