Last month, black hoods and orange jumpsuits stood out in stark contrast to the marbled pillars of the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a jarring image — shackled prisoners framed by stately columns more accustomed to suited lawyers and robed judges. This guerrilla theater action on the 11th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay brought the pain, immorality and illegality of government detention and torture, intentionally hidden from view, into the public gaze.
Sometimes the first task of an activist is to make the invisible visible; if people can’t see an injustice, it is that much harder to change. Distance, ideology or even simple science often obscure very real problems. When was the last time you noticed lead in your house paint? Or PCBs in your drinking water, or dioxin in your air? It’s a similar challenge to stirring up public outrage about an offshore prison camp.
Particularly for those of us living in a privileged position on the map of empire, wars, torture and human rights abuses are often distant. But actions that bridge that distance can make a big difference. Witness Against Torture’s annual actions, along with other political work, has helped lead to a dramatic reduction of the number of inmates held at Guantánamo, although the prison has yet to be closed.
Washington, D.C., has seen its share of this kind of guerrilla theater over the years. In early 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) sponsored the Winter Soldier Investigation — a public venue for live, first-person testimony from soldiers about the true nature of the war and the policies shaping it. Meanwhile, VVAM vets in full combat gear staged mock search-and-destroy missions around D.C., rounding up Vietnamese actors, shooting them, dragging them by their hair, and generally instilling fear and panic among observers.
In the past decade, Iraq Vets Against the War (IVAW) has replicated these actions with a focus on Iraq and Afghanistan operations. IVAW vets conducted their own search-and-destroy theater, with “Operation First Casualty” teams in combat gear moving through Chicago during the presidential convention, as well as in New York, San Francisco and D.C. — detaining suspects all along the way, bringing tense desert situations to urban America. Operation First Casualty was so named, of course, because of the adage that “truth is the first casualty of war.”
Both guerrilla theater and storytelling through documentation are dramatic ways of inserting the horrors of a war and atrocities fought overseas into the daily life and consciousness of blissfully ignorant constituents — and potentially moving them to action.
Amnesty International is known around the world for bringing torture and illegal imprisonment out into the public realm as part of its efforts to end human rights abuses. Recently, Amnesty collaborated with artists in creating street installations featuring strip images of political prisoners on fences in a way that makes them visible to viewers moving past the fences. It places the prisoners outside of the bars, from a specific perspective, rather than behind them. Not only are the images compelling, but the way they are viewed reflects a complicated story of obscured truths and invites the viewer to get involved simply by stepping in to frame the image.
Another fascinating large-scale art project currently being produced to raise awareness of genocides and atrocities is the Bones Project. One million bones are being created by artists and activists for display on the National Mall this June. When the bones are laid out on the ground they will evoke a mass grave site; the display will be part art project, part participatory event, and part visceral, gut-wrenching social commentary. In this way the installation serves as a call to action, a way to educate and raise awareness, and a collaborative memorial for victims and survivors.
Perhaps the most longstanding and significant example of visualizing the invisible is the work of the Asociacion Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine women who publicly demonstrated, danced and sang for their disappeared children and husbands, in direct defiance of the military dictatorship during the “Dirty War” between 1976 and 1983, as well as after. They carried photographs or memorabilia, often scarfs representing diapers of their lost family members. Through their sustained actions at prisons and in the central plaza of Buenos Aires, they bore witness to their connection to the disappeared. There were many reasons for the power of their protest: the novelty of women taking the role of political protagonists in the male-dominated society, the sheer number of participants — which grew from 14 founders to thousands of supporters — and the ongoing, long-term physical presence of the women for more than 40 years.
Making a problem that is usually ignored seen — whether through guerrilla theater, storytelling, documentation, photographs or family members — can be strategically effective, especially when the powers that be are doing all they can to silence or hide the evidence. Using art and cultural expression to take on war and human rights abuses seems particularly fitting, as they represent an alternative mode of waging conflict for a more peaceful future.
A new book explores how Miss Major has persevered over six inspiring decades on the frontlines of the queer and trans liberation movement.
Humor in Native culture has never been simply about entertainment. Comedy is also used to fight cultural invisibility and structural oppression.
Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
When I read articles like this it makes me feel like there are some people in positions to stand up and make a difference. In my own life I try to make a difference starting with me and how I move through this world. While it seems so small, I often feel like our government is so corrupt that little will make a difference to change the atrocities that have been occurring for generations. I for one am aware (mostly) of what goes on behind closed doors but feel helpless to change it. I vote but what else. “Truth is the first casualty of war”. It is like saying I need to watch horror movies to understand what horror is. I sign the petitions and cry buckets of tears and send money to aid in making a difference but like many people due to family etc… I am limited. What can we do to ACTUALLY make a significant change?? What can we do do get Guantanamo Prison CLOSED for good? What can we do to bring the U.S. military home where they belong? I have witnessed first hand the casualty of war with a nephew who will never be the same after his deployment and a son-n-law still serving time in Afghanistan (his third tour). Devastating to the families. I live on the Mexican border where I witness daily the affects and tragedies of a “police state” and the cruelties inflicted on immigrants. What is the answer? While I know it is not silence, there seems to be so little we can do and it is very discouraging and disheartening. I keep thinking that the answer begins with how we raise our children. Get rid of T.V., NO violent video games, No wretched violent movies. Back to nature and nurture. We are becoming a more violent nation due to the radical saturation of violent media. Our children are completely de-sensitized, to the point that killing and torture on a video game is no different than killing and torturing in person. Who can put an end to this and what kind of people create these things?
I hear you loud and clear, and offer support in keeping alert to these matters you bring up. The road is not easy or enjoyable, but some must continue raising these issues.
There are no good answers, but I feel the core to these problems stems from the daily demise of representation in the federal government. Specifically the number of representatives in the House. Congress froze the number in 1929. Yet, today there’s 3 times the population, thus We the People lose each time a new citizen is added.
While no one bothers with this issue, ask yourself this question, “Would fewer people running the federal government produce a better government?” Or, think of it in different terms, “How much learning could be accomplished in a classroom with a couple hundred students?”
I strongly hold that when Congress passed Public Law 62-5, the People stopped being a concern to the federal government. And, so, 84 years later, it’s time to bring focus to this universal issue – lack of proper representation.
These struggles we see day in and day out are not meant to be so troublesome, but they have become so from poor and fragmented management.
Each issue may be faced by activists, but this disburses and saps the collective effort which could be put to better use to strike at the source of our discontent – Congress. All activists could be imputing their efforts to thrust at the single common location of most ills we face today, for the House IS where not only laws are passed, but spending bills too.
Demanding more representatives, I sense will cause much more good to occur, because there are alternatives to the systems of today, without which, this centralized dictatorship government will continue to expand the misery.
However, with more and more people representing the People, there will be more minds able to work on the issues and see that today’s way is the wrong way to manage a large country.
Thank you Suzanne for your comment, and thanks for standing up for peace and justice in your daily life– yes, I believe along with you, that individual efforts make a difference ( often in ripples we do not see) and, as well, that individual actions are not enough to stem the tide of violence and greed. This is true not only because of the breadth and pervasiveness of problems, but also because we are easily isolated, overcome, depressed if working alone ( at least most of us mortals!) So, even the elementary school activists i work with know, and can articulate, the importance of community, of working in groups, with support. I think building community and local resiliency while fighting for better lives is definitely part of the solution. Adalante!
One thing this article makes me think of, especially in light of Nadine’s article last week on creative activism in the pro-choice movement, is the relationship between this kind of dramatization of violence and the much-criticized use by pro-life activists of gruesome images of aborted fetuses. Is there a difference? Those images often have the effect of scaring people away; I imagine that having a bunch of guys in camo doing search-and-destroy missions in a shopping mall might have a similar effect.
Both FDR & Mussolini defined Fascism as: the marriage of the power of the State to the power of Big Business. That’s exactly what we’ve had in the USA for decades. The old political paradigm is dead. The new paradigm is: the Oligarchy v. the rest of us.
Today’s Fascism is sometimes softer, milder (a la Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”)…but not always.
Excellent post…excellent (and necessary) guerilla theater…Kudos!