Constructing an image through protest

Protest works by engaging others in your struggle.  The first step is getting attention, and an arresting image (sometimes including arrest) is a way to do that.  This morning’s LA Times featured two such images; it got me thinking about the constructing of an image that travels–sometimes even globally.

Hooligans–or anti-gentrification activists–have been tipping Smart Cars in San Francisco.  It strikes me as hostile, aggressive, arresting, and even a little funny–for the moment.  Scanning the web you can find similar statements in other expensive cities.  You can find images of the cars tipped on any edge; in Amsterdam, cars have ended up in the canals.

Thus far, no one has claimed responsibility for these acts of vandalism in San Francisco, and the tipping hasn’t been tied to a set of remedies for high rents or boutique restaurants.  Might an aversion to tipping lead new urbanites to stay out altogether?  or to buy heavier less environmentally friendly cars?

In contrast, Students for Educational Reform, a national group with ties to charter school providers and a movement for school choice, placed 375 desks on Beaudry Street on the eve of an LA School Board meeting. The empty desks represent the number of students who drop out of LA public schools each week (LA Weekly report).  It’s a disturbing image.  Once they have your attention, they can draw your gaze to their other activities and perhaps their remedies, which include expanded choice of school charters.

Crafting the image is a start.  The car tippers and SFER created striking and stationary images to draw attention their message, SFER much more deliberately.  Often the powerful images of social movement conflicts come in conflict, evocatively described.  You know about the four freshmen at a Greensboro lunch counter and Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat on a bus, and if you can’t evoke their images, you’ll find them on this blog.  You know about radical Catholics pouring their own blood on missile nosecones, and anti-whaling campaigners paddling surfboards out to confront whaling ships.  You know about Lech Walesa organizing strikes of Polish shipworkers at Gdansk and Gandhi leading a long march to make salt.  And so much else.

The image crystallizes the conflict, drawing not only attention but also sympathy or concern.  They may often seem spontaneous, but clever activists think about the images, as well as the messages, they mean to send.

Of course, it’s not all in activist control.

Antiwar activists at Kent State placed flowers in the rifle barrels of National Guardsmen policing their protests.  This was the image they meant to project in 1970.  Far easier to find, however, are depictions of chaos and grief when the Guardsmen shot and killed four students.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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