Protest as Ritual

I have always been a firm believer in the power of protest and have even once received fifteen minutes of fame for a rather grandiose showing at the G20 Protests in Pittsburgh in 2009 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Article). As a child, I joined in every possible act of protest for a kid growing up in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. I wrote letters to the president and public representatives. I phoned local media outlets to get them to cover what I saw as gross injustices. However, now as I get older, I fear becoming increasingly disenchanted, and even disgusted, at any attempt to influence our ever distant governing structure. It’s been particularly difficult since watching the fallout of  the protests in Pennsylvania against Hydraulic Fracturing to keep our waters safe. But, still, when a chance to protest arises, I get the same butterflies in my stomach. I go through the same process of mental preparation. My energy changes. I feel hope.

In order to get rid of the nagging voice that says protesting is a waste of time, I usually tell myself, and any who inquire, that it at least shows politicians, lobbyists, and business execs that we’re bearing witness to their crimes, that we still care enough to come together against it, even if it is for purely symbolic purposes. I do believe this; however, I’m also looking at protest in another context now—that of a ritual. Protest is essentially performance, a form of play: the signs, the chants, the songs, the clapping, the stomping. It is an act of heavy, directed, and focused intent, a secular form of prayer.

I just finished Carlos Castaneda’s first book The Teachings of Don Juan and found in it an interesting correlation to a book on new physics, Punk Science by Manjir Samta-Laughton.  Samta-Laughton references prayer studies which show that prayer is more effective statistically than many leading medications, even aspirin.  Both Don Juan’s teachings on the acquisition of power and Samta-Laughton’s analysis of prayer refer to the amazing capacity of focused thought and intent to bend and shape reality. Protest, the gathering of individuals passionately intending on bringing into reality a common goal, could quite possibly have a very real and significant effect on our collective consciousness, even if that goal seems materialistically impossible in our corporatocracy.

The recognition and belief in this power would make action and true acts of protest more viable for us as a people. We need to tear ourselves away from the news (even the “liberal” media) which only reveals to us the most limited means and most narrow paths to change. I’ll reference one of Obama’s favorite rhetorical tool, marking “false choices” (false dichotomies), here. We’re consistently fed false choices through our media. We can vote republican or democrat. We can drink poisoned water or we can live in poverty. We can continue on in this particular political system or let our society into anarchic chaos. Once we begin to realize the power of community and positive and focused collective intent, perhaps we will begin to note the abundance of false choices that we’re being fed and act against them in ways that formerly seemed impossible.

Americans cannot afford to opt out of the trend of collective action and meaningful protest. We need to begin to believe that true power can be obtained from it, that it’s not merely symbolic. Once this occurs, I am positive that we will begin to see radical change taking place as more and more people realize the infinite possibilities for diverse and truly free ways of living.



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4 responses to “Protest as Ritual

  1. Wayne Wise

    Nice article Crystal. Though I have never been as involved in protest as you (though there was a time I was much more heavily involved in politics) I hear what you’re saying.

    The Castaneda books were highly influential on my worldview when I was in my early 20’s, and many of the ideas in them still play out in my worldview. I reread the entire series a couple of summers ago and was pleased to see they still resonated. Now I have to look for Punk Science.

    • Thanks Wayne! I’m planning on diving into some more of his work, as well. Punk Science is really amazing, particularly the first half. Thinking about the quantum mechanics from a biological perspective is truly inspiring.

  2. Crystal, interesting article. As I’ve given a lot of thought to the ritual aspects of socio-political actions I thought I should offer the other side of this perspective.

    On the one hand protests are certainly ritualistic: there are the repeated and symbolic use of costumes, words and movements, &c that are intended to produce a desired effect.

    However, most ritual theorists agree that rituals are only continually performed when they work. If they don’t work, rituals are either given up or adapted, something that American protesters at least haven’t seemed to grasp. At least there has been edy little evolution of protest methodology over the past ten years.

    For a historical example of this consider the failure of the Lakota Ghost Dance Movement, a very symbolic ritual performance designed to bring about real socio-political change. There was the use of dance and chanting to symbolically counteract the American governmental worldview, the use of costumes (ghost shirts like the black block masks) that supposedly granted invulnerability, &c. And yet all the ghost dancers were just as slaughtered at Wounded Knee.

    I suspect what may be at the root of this failure is that the efficacy of the symbolic actions utilized by Wovoka only worked within the worldview of the community performing the ritual. The US government, then just as now, felt those actions were a load of mumbojumbo, and no match for guns. Modern protesters relying on black block anonymity, chanting, puppets, &c encounter the same problem, these techniques only work inside that worldview, not the worldview of global capitalism.

    What made protests work, like those in Egypt recently, was that those people did not treat their protests as a symbolic performance. Rather these people were confronted by a desperate position of real problems in immediate need of address. Taking to the streets was not a rhetorical stance or symbolic performance, it was the only option available.

    So while protests due have ritual aspects, I feel that as long as contemporary American protesters continue to treat their actions solely on symbolic and spectacular terms then it is no wonder they will only be treated as the same kind of juvenile puppetshow everyone is watching on TV, and protests will continue to fail to cause real change.

  3. I completely agree with you! As I noted at the end of the article, we do have to surpass the purely symbolic in order to create change. We have the same need that they have in Egypt, we simply are being distracted from recognition of the fact. We also no longer believe that we can create change. We also need that belief. That is the crux of the point that I am trying to make. I truly appreciate your response. And, honestly, I entirely agree with you!

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