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Don’t dress like a protester

Contributed by

“Dress like a Republican so you can talk like an anarchist.”

Colman McCarthy
In Sum

If you look like a stereotypical protester, it’s easy for people to write you off. If you look like someone who doesn’t usually hit the streets (the guy next door or an airline pilot in full uniform), people can more easily identify with you. Therefore, don’t dress like a protester.

People don’t care about protesters. Oh, there go those silly protesters again. What are they protesting this time? Look: the police are hitting them over the head! Well, they must have done something to deserve it.

It’s not quite that bad, but you get the idea. Based on what they see in the media, folks get a fairly fixed idea of what “protesters” look like — and the stereotype doesn’t usually lend itself to immediate sympathy for your cause. If you’re planning a mass street action and want to reach out to people who may not already agree with you, think about how you can undermine their stereotypes about “protesters” see PRINCIPLE: Use others’ prejudices against them. Remember: protest is what you are doing; it is not your identity see THEORY: Political identity paradox.

If you want schoolteachers, seniors and office workers to get angry that a cop is hitting you over the head, dress like you’re on your way over to their house for Sunday dinner. Make it easy for them to imagine themselves, or their kids, in your position.

Consider the aura conveyed by what you wear, whether that’s the civility and seriousness of civil rights marchers in suit and tie or the calculated absurdity of “Billionaires” in tuxedos. In all ten years that Billionaires for Bush see CASE protested in the streets, including in the midst of some running street battles with police, never did a single one of us get arrested. It undoubtedly helped that most of us were white, but it also helped that most of us were wearing tuxedos. In New York, we had a one-liner: “New York’s Finest would never arrest New York’s finest dressed.” And it was true. They never did. Of course, the action you’re involved in may not afford the luxury of tuxedos, or generally leave you a lot of room to not dress like a protester. It may require protective gear: bandannas or gas masks to protect from tear gas; heavy clothing or even shields to protect yourself from billy clubs and rubber bullets. Even then, creativity can show the human and beautiful side of dissent. At the Battle in Seattle, many blockades were works of art, and many blockaders were creatively costumed. Or consider the Masquerade Project in New York, decorating gas masks with multicolored sequins and feathers, or the Tute Bianche in Italy or the Prêt à Révolter collective in Spain, or the “Book Bloc” in the UK, all of which wore creative yet protective protest gear into battle, thereby subverting the official media narrative that protesters are violent, scary and (worst of all!) humorless.

Often the most effective protests are those that don’t look like protests. Perhaps to be effective — to quote a character in Peter Carey’s novel The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith — “you will have to make yourself into something beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine you.”

A long-time veteran of creative campaigns for social change, Andrew led the decade-long satirical media campaign “Billionaires for Bush” and co-founded the Other 98%. He's the author of a couple books: Daily Afflictions, Life’s Little Deconstruction Book, and the forthcoming I Want a Better Catastrophe: Hope, Hopelessness and Climate Reality. Unable to come up with with his own lifelong ambition, he’s been cribbing from Milan Kundera: “to unite the utmost seriousness of question with the utmost lightness of form.” You can find him at andrewboyd.com.

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