Paul Inglis critiques the use of placards and protest in light of this and last year’s Women’s Marches.
One of the simplest political actions a person can take is attending a demonstration with a placard. Not that this devalues the act, of course: rather, protest signs are a simple, cheap and accessible way to come along and fight for a cause. It is this ease of access that has allowed thousands of people, freshly politicised by the near-constant outrages of our time, to intervene in the struggle to change the world. So many people are going to demonstrations now, they’ve almost become a fashionable thing to be seen at. This is certainly the idea you might have gotten trawling through Twitter and Instagram during last year and this year’s Women’s March. (That, and a minor obsession with biologically essentialist definitions of womanhood, but I digress.)
Looking through the Women’s March hashtag, you might believe that it was some sort of witty-slogan contest. So many pictures were uploaded with so many attempts at pithy rebukes to Trump and friends that you can find numerous Buzzfeed listicles of placards that are “Clever“, “Badass“, or even signs “That Will Make You Laugh Harder Than You Should“. So many, in fact, that it seems the main thing people know or remember about these marches are the funny signs rather than the demands or the anger of the people.
Naturally, this has dredged up predictable debates on the left about performative activism. Has the protest placard lost its original purpose as a serious mode of protest? I myself feel that these discussions may be glossing over an important point, which is that even “serious” placards are performative to a certain degree. Nothing about a placard has the direct and immediate economic effect of sabotage or a strike, nor do they build long-term community power in the way that serve-the-people programs and squats do. Placards do not really bring about a concrete result as such, rather they communicate a fleeting political message to onlookers, and – what seems to be more important – help protesters articulate a shared identity through artistic expression.
Performative protest isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, all protest is performative to some degree. Black blocs, for example, have a valid purpose – when employed effectively they can protect marginalised people at marches and wipe fascists off the street before they get a chance to spread their vile ideas. It just so happens, however, that they are also extremely performative. One need only look at the way in which both anarchist and news outlet fetishise the imagery of the masked street fighter to see what an important and radical symbolic power the black bloc has. To take part in one is to perform an empowering and seductive identity, if only briefly – one of the dashing youth combatant waging a desperate struggle against the entire death machine.
It is this performing of identity, albeit in much gentler terms, that placards and protest signs achieve. When you are on a march, there in the crowd with your condemnation of Trump or transphobia or UKIP or imperialism, you feel yourself to be part of a social movement; of the tidal wave of history perhaps, but not in the sense that you are consumed and effaced by it. No, your placard is your own independent voice in this grand, angry cacophony, and while it moves in concert with others, your words can still be heard clearly among all the rest. This is a totally valid feeling, and what’s more it is a vital and necessary one. When you are fighting for a cause in this troubled world, it is crucial that you feel a healthy confidence in your own voice and capacity to make change, otherwise apathy sinks in.
So we shouldn’t necessarily get worried about performative activism as such when we criticise the “funny signs” of the Women’s March. It is simply that the performance they represent ends up being put on more for an individual’s social media cred rather than for a desperately fought cause. It is easy to compare images of Vietnam War or Suffragette demonstrations with those of the Women’s March and claim that some substantial change in the use of protest signs has taken place. Yet to do so would also ignore the fact that protest signs – with messages exactly as grave and urgent as those held by the students of ’68 – can be found right now on Black Lives Matter marches. Placards are still serving the same purposes today as they did yesterday.