Playful Politics Can Make Protest More Effective By Eric van der Vort
How do you structure protest to make it engaging and effective? This is a challenge new organizers have been confronting. Since the Women’s Marches, protest has become an almost daily activity for Americans. A quick scan of sites like Resistance Calendar shows dozens of protests or community meetings happening in cities across the nation.
Many of these protests follow a familiar script: gather people in a public space for speakers and chanting. Some protests are small, with just a handful of people. Others are larger, involving anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand people like the Women’s Marches or the Marches for Science. Nearly all of them draw on some version of this script.
The typical protest script is well known – and a little stale. Relying on it can lead to problems. Spaces do not always work. Speakers can be hard to hear. Chants do not always catch on. People still attend the protests because of the solidaristic benefit of being around likeminded people and the expressive benefit of feeling heard, but they may be entirely disengaged from the the actual event.
How do you keep people engaged, active, and coming back for more? One way is to incorporate playful elements into your practice. By incorporating fun (or using a tactical repertoire drawing on what might be called “playful politics”), organizers can interrupt the “typical” script and make protest more effective.
We can already see playful politics at work in past and present efforts. One of the best parts of contemporary protest is the signage. Attend any major protest and you will see people asking to take pictures of many of the signs. This provides both the sign-maker and the photographer with solidaristic and expressive benefits. This form of creative expression is the most democratic and most consistent form of playful politics at work in contemporary protest, but it is by no means the only example we can find.
Groups like the Bread and Puppet Theater (whose founder is pictured above) use puppetry and circus performance to build political theatre. A group of drag ‘nuns’ has raised money and fomented protest for years in LGBTQ communities. Mock funerals for legislation deploy eulogies and New Orleans-style jazz to draw attention to issue. Organizers making use of playful political repertoires can sustain engagement by appealing to their constituents’ sense of play, convey messages in unexpected ways, and attract media coverage to broaden their audiences.
Beyond these obvious benefits, playful politics can serve another purpose: to deescalate tense political situations. Nonviolence and peaceful assembly are core principles of American protest movements, but our polarized political climate sharpens edges and leads to more conflict. Property damage is rare. Physical confrontations are even more rare, but the threat of confrontation has often felt real.
A recent demonstration and counter-rally in Syracuse provide an example of how playful politics might be useful in such situations. Two groups (one politically right, one politically left) gathered. At one point, a question of whether soda cans had been rolled across the street prompted police to ask protestors on both sides to avoid even the appearance of such.
A young man from the counter-protestor side began walking down the block toward a pair of police officers. He juggled a can of Pepsi as he walked, slowly and deliberately, toward the officers. The police and protestors on the other side watched him closely. At the end of his walk, he stopped near the police… and then extended the can to them, asking, “You want a Pepsi?” The officers refused his offer and he walked back to the main group of counter-protestors.
The young man in this situation obviously walked a tightrope, playing on expectations and uncertainty about what he would do. He drew on a cultural reference (Back to the Future’s Pepsi scene) to defy expectations (at least in that moment). Playful politics in protest not only offer a sense of fun and a way to increase engagement and attention; they may also offer a window into how we can defuse and de-escalate tense political moments.
Eric van der Vort is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Syracuse University.