Friday, November 21, 2014

The Art of Protest


There is something deeply compelling about the thought of Anonymous becoming involved in the protest movement in Ferguson, and it goes deeper than just the visceral good feeling of sticking it to the KKK. If you have been following the events, you know that the grand jury is preparing to meet today for what might be its final session. According to law enforcement officials, a decision on whether to charge Wilson in the death of Michael Brown could come today, even as the city negotiates for the officer’s resignation. Whatever decision is reached, it will not even touch the greater injustices that frame the issue. The Pumpkin Festival riots in Keene NH illustrated for all of us how the political protest in Ferguson was was portrayed as 'rioting' by the media and rather than an organized, ongoing movement prompted by a wrongful shooting death of an unarmed teenaged boy. These racist misperceptions are the very thing that bring about the shootings of both Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

When the local KKK made threats against protesters, the group known as Anonymous went into action. They donned their Guy Fawkes masks, fired up their computers and successfully unmasked several local klansmen. They were widely criticized for mistakenly identifying the wrong officer responsible last summer and the collective nature of Anonymous means that members act on their own. But I won’t deny that that feels good to hear about someone taking on the KKK. It feels good to hear them called out as a terrorist organization.

Perhaps the part of the story that resonates is the idea of an anonymous person stepping in to protest an injustice that will not be adequately addressed in our present legal system. The power of that idea lies in the anonymity. One of the bleaker aspects of the digital age is the complete absence of mystery. We know more than we wish to know about our political leaders, how they worship, what they eat and who they sleep with. Their public personae are systematically and relentlessly excoriated by a sensationalizing, profit driven media so much that one wonders how many truly effective and well-meaning people have been discouraged from public service. No matter how much we believe in our elected officials when we vote for them, they never cease to let us down when it comes to actual change. The institutions that used to command respect and make us feel safe have ceased to do so; our friendly neighborhood cop has morphed into a highly armed military-like presence in our cities and towns. The idea of and anonymous collective who sticks up for those who have had power taken from them holds a deep fascination in this environment.

The idea has its complement in the art world with artists like the Guerrilla girls arts collective in the 80’s whose fearless imagery of protest took on sexism and racism in the arts and Banksy, who has been able to distill and capture our fears and eroding confidence in institutions and ideals that were once revered in a concise, elegant and easily decodable visual form. Both artists and hackers are linked by a common emphasis on protest through the use of image, ideas and the powerful currency of information. And rumors of Banksy’s capture by London anti-grafitti squads aside, part of the fascination of his imagery lies in its unruliness. It has the habit of showing up at a place and time chosen by its anonymous maker. Banksy's images hold power too because his observations are wise, funny and dead-on.

So we will hope that justice will be served for the community in Ferguson and that protesters will remain safe and maybe even begin the process of healing. We will keep hoping that these events will inspire a larger conversation about the enduring reality of racism in our country, the overarming of both civilians and law enforcement and how the media perpetuates dangerous misperceptions about race. Let’s also hope that this new generation of unknown warriors in the digital age be touched by the angels of their better nature. I won’t lie, I love seeing the KKK unmasked and shamed by the ugly glare of their beliefs, but I wonder if this feeling of righteous schadenfreude does enough to get at the root of the problem. It might be better if we could think of a way to take a cue from Banksy’s iconic image of a protester who lobs a bouquet of flowers instead of an explosive and harness the vast power of information to change minds and inspire us to change those institutions even when they let us down time and time again. But I believe the power of protest and social change and I believe in the people trying to help through the Anonymous group, because quite truthfully, I need to.

I give you, dear readers, your mandatory fun for the day:

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