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Should protests be fun?

A look at protest culture in 2020

Mayumi Rhone, center, leads fellow protesters in synchronized dance moves during a protest rally in front of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, seen at left, Friday, June 5, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Chris Pizzello, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — More than a month after George Floyd’s death sparked widespread outrage, protests for racial justice continue across the country, taking a myriad of forms, from “die-ins” where people lay face down on the ground to silent marches. Other demonstrations have adopted a more lively tone, and some have turned into dance parties in the street.

The Los Angeles Times reported that an Oakland protest in June resembled a “nightclub,” as people stayed out partying to songs from Kanye West and the Maze until midnight. Similar scenes were reported in cities like Syracuse, New York, Detroit, Michigan, and Denver, Colorado, where demonstrators set up a mobile rig with top-of-the-line speakers.

For people like Ashland Mines, a Black DJ who lives in New York City, the increased participation in public protests is meaningful. But he feels the tone of a demonstration matters, and seeing how some people treat them like an opportunity to have fun makes him uncomfortable.

“Just seeing people taking advantage of the fact that everyone worldwide is bucking social distancing guidelines to come together to stand against state-sanctioned murder, and then throwing parties supposedly for the same cause — it just feels disrespectful to the people whose lives were taken and to their families,” said Mines.

At a time when there is increased involvement in protests, many are wondering if there’s a right way to participate. Founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, Lex Scott, said that for some people, especially those of younger generations, protesting has become trendy.

An individual might spend time before a protest hanging out with friends and making signs with pithy statements, picking out an outfit that will look cool when they post pictures of the day later on Instagram. Then they show up, there’s music and chanting, and they have a good time. But can protesting as a pastime lead to real change?

According to Scott, protests should only be organized as a last resort when authorities have failed to respond to specific demands communicated first through official channels. She bemoans the fact that Instagram influencers have used protests as backdrops for photoshoots. The Twitter account @influencersinthewild posted a number of examples, including a video of Russian influencer Kris Schatzel wearing a black dress and posing in front of a camera with a Black Lives Matter sign. At a protest in Salt Lake City several weeks ago, Scott witnessed a woman selling merchandise, like purses, keychains, hats and cups.

“It felt wrong, it felt dirty,” Scott said.

“We don’t just protest to protest,” Scott added. “I’ve protested for years, and it’s not fun for me. It’s not entertainment for me. I am so sick of protesting. We shouldn’t have to protest.”

That being said, Scott said she likes to have fun at protests and has organized events that involve music and drums.

Thaddeus Miles, a Boston-based photographer and director of community services at MassHousing, agrees that protesting doesn’t have to be dreary; it can be joyful.

“I am a big believer that joy is a major part of our resilience,” said Miles, who is Black. “If we allow the protests and what’s happening now to take away our joy, then we are going to have a most difficult time moving forward to address the issues that are there.”

“Systematic racism is not something that you can get rid of just through anger,” Miles added.

A struggle, not a party

Like Scott, Mines said he is tired of protesting. Mines, who is 37, said he has been attending protests against war and in support of environmental, immigrant and minority causes since he was a teenager.

“In general, protests are not fun. They’re somehow equal parts tedious and terrifying, like so boring, but you also might die or get gassed and/or arrested,” Mines said. “This is work. This is part of the struggle. It’s not a party.”

While Mines doesn’t want to tell people how they can and cannot raise their voices against injustice, he has personally declined invitations to perform as a DJ at protests in the past.

“I’m 100% sure that everyone involved in any of these events’ heart is in the right place, but I just feel like the tone of a banging DJ-set has no place in the midst of a desperate community’s call to change,” said Mines. “I think the gravity of the situation being protested against should be reflected in the demonstrations.”

Scott calls it “protest tourism” when people show up to a demonstration for fun, or to witness the spectacle of it, without being invested in the issues on a personal level.

“We are seeing a lot of bandwagon people and people who are treating the movement as if it’s trendy, and as if protests are a party,” said Scott. She said she thinks protests in Salt Lake City have been well-organized and goal-oriented.

“The majority of people out there protesting truly want to change the culture of the nation, they truly want to fight police brutality, and they have good intentions.”

Joy in social movements

Music, fun and theatricality have been part of protests as far back as they have been documented, according to David S. Meyer is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, who has studied social movements. He said there is no agreement on what constitutes a protest. The word itself might be interchanged with demonstration, march, rally or riot.

Participants in the Boston Tea Party wore costumes. Bob Dylan performed at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The anti-war Youth International Party or “Yippies” used humor to keep people engaged, nominating a pig for president outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Since the birth of photography, people have used signs at protests to grab attention and communicate their messages.

“Music drenched some of the major movements in U.S. history, including civil rights and labor,” said Meyer. “That was always about solidarity and entertainment — even fun.”

Rather than being frivolous, entertainment is a way of generating attention from bystanders and sustaining the commitment of people who turn out for a protest, Meyer said.

Kevin Favreau, a Salt Lake City resident who works as a program coordinator at Salt Lake County, has been attending protests for more than a decade. But he said the one he went to on June 20 was unlike any other. When the group was marching, they listened to songs by Black artists, like “Hey Ya!” by OutKast. When they stopped in front of the District Attorney’s office, they started dancing and did the Electric Slide.

“It felt powerful!” said Favreau, who is white. “I was allowed to be happy about trying to make a difference, not morose, not melancholy.”

While the event was personally impactful for him, Favreau still has mixed feelings about it.

“As strange as it is, I still feel weirdly regretful that I enjoyed it,” Favreau said. “It’s so complex. I don’t know. How much when I was smiling, was I really reflecting on the violence members of our community have been experiencing?”

Miles has also attended protests that were upbeat and fun, involving music, spoken word poetry and prayer.

“Some of those are the most amazing protests I’ve seen,” said Miles. “People have been able to come out with something, with a different spirit.”

But Miles said it’s important for people to do their homework to understand the historical context of racial discrimination and the deep pain that accompanies it before they show up to such events. He has seen people at protests who don’t look like they are there for the right reasons, which he said is fine, he said, as long as they have an open heart and are willing to learn.

“I don’t believe the only emotion our young people need to see displayed from us is anger. Young people have been traumatized enough. If the march is only about anger, I don’t know how that addresses a broader sense of purpose,” said Miles.