One year ago, dozens of direct actions took place across Washington, DC, to disrupt the Inauguration of Donald Trump. Today, celebrating and defending dissent and commemorating the first salvo in an ongoing struggle, there are numerous events all over the country. Many of these are part of a broad call to build out our movements for collective liberation. If you’re in DC, there are a few things going on today.
In the spirit of this solidarity, I’m sharing below a talk I gave in November as part of a panel on protest, theory, and practice at American University’s Public Anthropology Conference. It’s relatively unedited, I’m not a social movement scholar, etc. – but it’s some of my thinking on solidarity from the academy.
By around dawn the morning of January 20th in Washington, DC, four individuals sat at the intersection of 10th and E, back to back, connected in a technical lockdown. A half dozen others—myself included—sat right where the police had dragged us, in between the concrete barricades that were supposed to form the security lines for entering Donald Trump’s inaugural parade route but instead became the nucleus for one of several direct actions occurring simultaneously across downtown DC. A few dozen others flanked us, chanting slogans and waving signs amidst the tumultuous opening salvo against the President’s Inauguration. The goal of The Future is Feminist, the non-hierarchical radical feminist collective that spearheaded the action at 10th and E, was to disrupt the checkpoint for as long as possible. Several other checkpoints saw similar direct action protests of varying size and tactics that day—each representing a community concerned about what a Trump presidency meant for it, from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, from radical labor to queer activists—and the city also saw a permitted march—a winding parade of protesters, artists, puppets, and families—and an unpermitted anticapitalist, antifascist march clad in black. All of this was organized autonomously under the label “Disrupt J20.” By the afternoon, the other blockades had disbanded and police had kettled part of the black bloc march. Six and a half hours after locking down, the four individuals declared victory, unchained themselves voluntarily, and led a march away from the intersection, which by that time was teeming with hundreds of protesters who had formed a human wall—arms locked and several rows deep—preventing parade-goers from entering the checkpoint. This was how the tone was set for radical resistance to the Trump presidency.
In the months since, direct action has seen a revitalization, from immigration activists blockading ICE vehicles to prevent deportations to waves of ADAPT activists and allies staging occupations of Congressional offices every time Republicans have attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Direct action has also been used by antifascists and anti-racists operating under the ethic of no-platforming, working to prevent white supremacists from organizing or speaking in public, from Berkeley to Charlottesville, Boston to Gainesville. The Trump presidency has inaugurated mass resistance of many types, and starting with the events of January 20th we can see a large number of people turning to direct action to effect change, protect their communities, and assert their rights.
I had participated in this action not as an anthropologist but as an activist. But, as usual, I approached that day with an anthropological sensibility in many ways. Many forms of community organizing, including the organizing that went into Disrupt J20, emulate the ethnographic work that anthropologists do as activists build relationships with others. And as a man involved in a feminist group that centers the most marginalized voices, I was and am concerned with my place and the politics of representation, something which anthropologists honed in on a generation ago and continue to grapple with today, and something I’m conscious about even as I give this talk. As part of an acephalous, egalitarian group that reached decisions by consensus, and which itself acted autonomously alongside numerous other non-hierarchical groups in Disrupt J20 that day and in the weeks leading up to it, I was excited to be a part of a community organized according to different principles than the hierarchies and individualism that dominate American public life. Describing other ways of doing things and studying alternative modes of organizing society have long been at the center of anthropology’s contribution to our understanding of the world. And as both a scholar interested in an empathetic, engaged anthropology and an activist interested in creating a more just society, I viewed that day with an eye towards making the world a better place and creating a new set of relations through praxis. Our decision-making and action-taking processes were our politics—for the activists at 10th and E, direct action was at once both theory and action. It was praxis. Here I situate my experience that day within an attempt at a radical methodology, a revolutionary praxis, and militant scholarship. I put direct action forward as but one way that anthropologists can engage with the world, and I would argue that such participation should be in our toolbox when considering how to respond to our current moment.
On the same day as the blockades and marches, anthropologists around the world gathered collectively for a virtual read-in of Lecture Eleven from Michel Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended. The 1979 lecture addresses the intersections of biopolitics and state racism and the state’s power to discipline and control populations. It is a fitting read for our time, and a lecture that was and continues to be generative for those of us thinking through such issues. Scholarship, research, and theory can be central to radical political action. Movements are driven by ideas, and intellectual communities—certainly not just those in academia—can be crucial to helping these ideas take root and grow. Radical political teaching, and radical scholarship, are critical parts of defending society. Direct action is another. When faced with a resurgent ideology of hate and contemplating how to take action, anthropologists should organize in their communities and fight where they stand.
The scholarship on protest is a broad field, and the topic of resistance has long been of interest to social scientists. Often, though certainly not always, resistance gets glossed either as the armed resistance of revolutionaries or as the types of “everyday resistance” that workers and peasants engage in when faced with hegemonic power. While these forms of resistance and subversion are integral to our understanding of how people engage with the sites of power around them, today I focus on a particular form of resistance, one that seeks not only to subvert power but disrupt it or move beyond it. In opposing or moving beyond the current state of things, direct action constitutes one form of resistance warranting further discussion.
Direct action does many things, of course. Sometimes it obstructs; sometimes it liberates. Sometimes it cripples state or corporate power; sometimes it communizes space for all. Across the city on January 20th, people engaged in direct action as a part of a collective struggle for a more equal and just society in the face of not just a man or a party but a system that seeks to isolate and oppress us. In the months since the Inauguration, many people have forged new relations through action, whether at airports in opposition to the Muslim ban or in their workplaces through collective action. New networks of resistance, many centered on direct action, have formed in response to white supremacy and misogyny—and not just that of Trump. Direct action is part of building community, which is central to opposing not just the latest form of fascism but also the neoliberalism that brought it about.
In the immediate aftermath of the election one year ago, there were many different responses to the “new” situation we found ourselves in as scholars residing in the United States. This newness was, of course, not new at all for scholars of color, women, and queer academics for whom state, society, and the academy rarely make space. Neither was it new for students of color, women, gender-nonconforming students, undocumented students, and the many other marginalized populations inside and outside of the university. Nonetheless, the ratcheted up white supremacy and retrenched misogyny that Trump represented and still represents rightfully gave many pause. What was a concerned scholar to do?
There were calls to speed up our response to the crisis by paving the way for a sort of faster, more responsive ethnography, a way to study current events and contribute an anthropological voice to the public discourse. There were calls for a more public anthropology, to open the gates of knowledge in the face of swelling anti-intellectualism. There were calls to research what gave rise to Trumpism by supporting more scholarship of the Right, including the oft-cited white working class, but also other groups that rallied to Trump’s cause. All of these are ways to engage as a discipline in a time when many feel drawn to change the way we’ve been doing things. The read-in was itself a response to such a feeling, digging into our wheelhouse of reading and theory to respond to our time. There are other ways, for those of us in the university, to use our classrooms and our role as educators to teach radical politics, to help decolonize the university, to democratize the classroom, to unlearn the white supremacy and misogyny latent in our society and our institutions. Like the rest of the United States, the American university was created for particular bodies, and we have work to do to continue reimagining these spaces and communities. My point is, there are many ways to take action as anthropologists. One way that anthropologists can respond to our contemporary politics that is both intuitive and has great potential is to participate.
At the heart of cultural anthropology, arguably, is the method of participant-observation, and we can and should hone in on this approach and join those struggling against ascendant fascism on the frontlines. Emphasizing the “participant” part of participant-observation, I’m calling for radical, militant participation as a means of scholarly resistance. We should practice a radical method, an engaged theory, an anthropological praxis. In her defense of ethnography, Alpa Shah states that “with the crisis of the left and the spread of the right across the world… there is a compelling need for participant observation as revolutionary praxis, to offer better theory and action in the world.” While Shah still finds a tension between scholarship and activism despite this need, I think that a commitment to radical praxis has the potential to bolster both. Bringing scholarship and resistance together can be a fruitful process in a number of ways.
Being actively involved and already engaged in defending society will make a faster turnaround for research more possible when it is most needed, after all, and public scholarship can only be more relevant if it emerges from popular struggle. Spending time working alongside those trying to secure communities and improve lives also opens up new venues for a more public anthropology. And while studying the right is certainly a necessary project, one from which we can learn a great deal in order to better respond to and curtail movements that seek to retrench various forms of inequality, we would also do well to further our work with marginalized communities and in so doing redouble our efforts to support them in the everyday work of their defense, survival, revitalization, and emergence. Working at the service of these movements can reaffirm our commitments to those bearing the brunt of neoliberal and fascist policies and white supremacist and xenophobic violence.
By dedicating ourselves to and contributing to the movements that are doing the work, anthropologists can put their bodies at the barricades, build relations through community organizing, and engage with a world outside of academia, all while contributing to a more engaged anthropology. There are times when research will be exactly what political action needs—mapping hidden power relations, for example, or tracing patterns of abuse to be resisted. In these scenarios, an informed and engaged scholarship can contribute to causes seeking to empower or protect communities through research, advocacy, and presence. But there will also be times when the concerns of activists may not lend themselves to a conventionally published ethnography as we know it. The livelihoods of our interlocutors is foremost, of course, and security culture exists for a reason, as the state persecution of activists across the country and around the world has reminded us. Audra Simpson’s invocation of ethnographic refusal is just one demonstration of how we can be more creative in what it means to produce scholarship amidst varying power differentials. Another is the by-now old idea of “studying up.”
In times when writing vignettes about an action centering on organizers and activists may not be the best way to talk about our interlocutors, it would make the most sense to turn our gaze and study “up” from the perspective of our comrades on the frontlines. When Shah argued that participant observation was “a potentially revolutionary praxis,” she meant that it encourages us to “question our fundamental assumptions and preexisting theories about the world” and better “understand the relationship between history, ideology, and action.” For Shah, ethnography is more than a method—it is our praxis. Through this praxis we can encounter theories of action and social change while living the solidarity with communities that many anthropologists propound. From the eyes of those on the ground, it is actually quite easy to see the links between settler colonial genocide and the destruction of the environment, between slave catchers and riot cops, between broken windows and for-profit prisons, between redlining and profiling. Training an investigative and critical eye on the structures that oppress and divide is critical both to revealing such processes and to helping allies, accomplices, and comrades find common cause against the next common enemy.
Viewing that January day from the barricades, after all, included seeing the beautiful work of activists, but also witnessing the resolute force of the state. I saw the inspiring convergence of a collective response to hate as well as the face of an emboldened far-right. One only need shift her gaze to enable different ways of seeing and representing the space of political action. And as anthropologists, there are always many ways of engaging with an experience, and being at the barricades does more than let you see. A multi-sensorial engagement shows that there are many ways to encounter that day, from feeling the closeness of linking arms with trusting strangers, tasting hard-earned food from a communal kitchen, and the uplifting sounds of an anti-racist brass band to the smell of pepper spray, the dull thud of flashbangs, and the feel of police hands on protesters’ bodies. Emotions were there as well: the exhilaration of collective action and the fear of police violence, the compassion of street medics, the panic of news from the kettle, the angry and euphoric urgency of active resistance. As Tara Joly recently wrote about the work being done at Standing Rock, resistance is “a feeling, not a theory.” Protest is a multisensory activity, and as any anthropologist knows, there is no better way to understand what it’s like on the ground except to be there. Depending on the needs of the situation, one can also reflect on these experiences in different ways, highlighting activists or the forces they confront.
With direct action comes solidarity and mutual aid. This is also a place where bodies and voices are needed. Working quietly behind the protests and actions, networks of actors work to sustain the movement. Eight blocks away that day, police used flash bangs, pepper spray, tear gas, and riot shields to illegally kettle the anti-capitalist, antifascist march, beginning what has already been a long and draining series of felony charges, superseding indictments, a police raid on an activists’ house, and status hearings for over two hundred individuals whose trials will begin in two weeks [edit: six were acquitted in December, 129 had all charges dropped this Thursday – 59 people, including numerous local organizers, still face 60+ years in prison]. Since the Inauguration, a vast network of legal support and other forms of mutual aid have kept the promise of solidarity by working hard to keep these people out of jail. At every action there are media teams and street medics, jail support and legal observers, marshals and scouts, a complex configuration of people committed to doing the work. We can and should be among them, participating in our communities.
In calling for scholarly resistance through radical participation, I hope this can be part of a response to the problems of this time. There are countless ways to contribute, to act, to participate. This city alone has seen mobilizations around numerous causes. In Charlottesville, a diverse community came together to plan their own self-defense when the state failed to do so. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy several years ago, Occupy Sandy outpaced both FEMA and the Red Cross in some communities, demonstrating what direct action and mutual aid can do. In response to ascendant fascism, runaway capitalism, and disastrous climate change, what we need now more than ever is a radical, political, ethnographic sensibility that puts us on the ground and taking direct action.