Thank you to the UVA Black Graduate and Professional Student Organization, the Darden School of Business DSA Diversity Committee, and the Office of the Vice President and Chief Officer for Diversity & Equity for hosting; it is a pleasure to be here.
It has been a year of protests,
Washington, DC. Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston
for Women, for Climate Change awareness, against police brutality—Marching is everywhere, including here in Charlottesville.
I first took an interest in marching at UVA shortly after the announcement of a “Muslim ban” reached the school in January of 2017. It jeopardized students, many of whom were my friends, and I felt compelled to participate in the marches in protest. But with my interest in performance studies, I couldn’t help but notice the performative elements of the protest: Speakers with bullhorns gesturing to an enthusiastic crowd, march facilitators reading catchy, familiar slogans, and a multicolored collage of posters and faces. And as we processed from the steps of the Rotunda down the lawn, I wondered if this was how it felt to march in the 1960s civil rights campaigns—a peaceful, multicultural mobilization in the name of full citizenship.
In her chapter on marching, performance studies scholar, Soyica Colbert places the March on Washington in a historical continuum of marches that have all symbolically functioned both individually and collectively. The symbolic elements of the marches were performed (attire, chants, posters) in order to make an appeal to the American public that African-Americans were citizens deserving of rights.
In the Charlottesville rally, one woman held a poster with a picture of a presumably Muslim woman wearing an American flag-patterned hijab, also an appeal to citizenship. Colbert calls this similarity over time that is reconstituted in its own historical context a “web of affiliation.” She writes, “Webs of affiliation connect performances in the present to those enacted in the past that may otherwise go unnoticed and secure them as historical.” Looking backwards while moving forward connects political movements by drawing upon symbols and slogans to mobilize people.
Discussing the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin notes in Strategies for Freedom that “America has historically been unfavorably disposed to public displays of protest.” But by signifying to the 1963 March, protestors today can symbolically mark their protest as within the boundaries of acceptable protest. But a purely symbolic framework occludes the pragmatic effects of how the march actually changes the public space in which the march is happening.
The most interesting moment to me in the Charlottesville protest was when the hundreds of marchers crossed the street. It took several minutes for all of the marchers to make it to the other side of the street in the crosswalk, and in that time, cars piled up waiting to continue driving along McCormick Road. Drivers were forced to acknowledge the presence of those marchers. The moment was clear evidence that people in the march occupy dual statuses—as both signifiers and physical entities that influence the space around them.
In order to analyze marching, I needed a framework that could understand the body as both a symbol and a physical presence. Susan Foster, a dance theorist at UCLA, does just this in her piece, “Choreographies of Protest” when she labels “the body as a vast reservoir of signs and symbols, by envisioning the body as capable of both persuasion and obstinate recalcitrance.”
It seemed like the dance scholars were on to something:
Political and dance theorist Randy S. Martin asserts in his book Critical Moves that bodies, as opposed to theories, are the agents of politics—that is, as he writes, “Politics goes nowhere without movement.” The work that dance studies is able to do stems from its “presumption of bodies already in motion…[to] bridge the various splits between mind and body, subject and object, and process and structure that have been so difficult for understandings of social life to negotiate.” In dance studies, the body is interpreted both symbolically and materially.
World-renowned dancer, Bill T. Jones, takes it a step further with a principle that empirically notes a difference in bodies that Martin fails to recognize in the text: “we all have two arms [and] two legs, it’s true that there’s a thing called space; however, when certain bodies move through space depending on who the audience is there is a distinctly different way of thinking about it. Nothing is neutral…I call that the politics of the body; the politics of space.” Jones observes both that there is a difference in people and a difference in types of place.
To understand the tensions in performance between individuals and space, I turn to Judith Butler’s Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. In an age seemingly defined by protests and collective assemblies, Butler seeks to ascertain what the right to assemble means in a discourse of democracy and freedom.
She raises a notion which she terms “precarity,” to characterize those bodies that are subjected to imperilled livelihood and decimated infrastructure. In mobilizing en masse, Butler argues, these bodies demand attention be paid to their corporeal precarity. It is a demand to see these bodies that require the needs for which they are mobilizing. In concert, these bodies call “into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning actions of the political.”
Notes, however, was published in 2015, before the discourse surrounding free speech was co-opted to protect Neo-Nazi and white supremacist assemblies. I wonder how Butler would address our contemporary moment in Charlottesville, where white supremacists marching down the lawn and around the rotunda also were chanting, “you will not replace us,” which is an indicator of white anxiety of a perceived changing racial norm. We should ask: does precarity apply to people who are historically, demographically, and symbolically privileged, yet still maintain a claim to marginality? And in debating their claim to precarity, we must remember that bodies are physical manifestations as well, and understanding physical changes of people and spaces is also important.
In fact, on September 11, one month after the white supremacist lawn march, the University working group led by law school Dean Goluboff presented some findings. The purpose of the recommendations was “to pinpoint how the University’s response could have been more effective and identify changes to policies and practices that will better safeguard the University community from harm while upholding the University’s commitment to constitutionally protected free speech.” The working group distilled their recommendations into three areas to improve upon.
I was interested primarily in the second and third recommendations, which drew upon a presumed understanding of how the public space of the lawn has been regulated in the past. The proposal asserts that “a decades-long history of non-violent protests on Grounds that led them [the administration and police] to approach the march with the assumption that it was constitutionally protected and should be accommodated with minimal police intrusion.” If we operate under the assumption, as the officials did, that this was a nonviolent protest, then it would be useful to understand how past nonviolent protests on the lawn have been handled. Paying particular attention to how bodies are being regulated, the archives revealed some interesting history.
There were two major protests that demonstrate how the lawn has been regulated in the past. The first, in May of 1970, occurred in solidarity with student protests at Kent St. following the shooting of four students by police. The second happened in late March of 1986 as a part of the divestment movement in solidarity with anti-Apartheid South Africa. Both examples are poignant reminders that the public space of the lawn is a contested space, and it is important to pay attention to the way this contested spaces has been shaped over time.
In the week following the May 4th shooting at Kent State University, University of Virginia Students gathered to rally at Carr’s Hill in front of the President’s home. The roughly fifteen hundred students presented President Shannon with a telegram to sign that would be sent to Washington. He refused. Hundreds of students then moved to occupy Maury Hall, the NROTC building. They were dispersed following the threat of police action.
The week unfolded as students led several rallies, protests, and a strike against classes. Students also picketed the entrances of buildings, gathering widespread student and faculty support. As the week wore on, it was clear that the protests would not be dying down anytime soon.
That Friday, students held a “Honk for Peace” rally, the second of the week, but this time, police were ordered to disperse and apprehend them under the state “Riot Act.” When students withdrew back to the rotunda up University Avenue, police pursued. Wielding nightsticks, they chased students down the lawn toward Cabell Hall.
One picture taken shows that police must have reversed course as protestors fled up the sides of the lawn. Police entered lawn rooms to apprehend students they believed were protesting.
The mix of local and state police continued up Rugby Road, arresting students in Fraternity houses. At the end of the events, sixty-eight people had been arrested. The “C’ville 68” were charged the next morning.
Fast-forward to Friday March 21, 1986: the Cavalier Daily reported that a group of students called Protesting Oppression Working for Equality of Race (POWER) declared their intention to erect mock shanty town structures in solidarity with anti-Apartheid advocates in South Africa. Although it was not the first protest in the divestment campaign at the university, the POWER shanty towns became a lightning rod for controversy. The Cavalier Daily reported consistently on the protests over the next two weeks.
POWER drew support from the UVa community, but also a decent share of criticism as well. Third-year law student and POWER co-coordinator, David Given helped orchestrate support from law faculty who lent their support as part of Law Faculty Against Apartheid. The hope was that faculty involvement would legitimize the protests which were seen as a leftist minority movement. A letter to the editor from R. Stewart Eads, Jr., a first-year college student, expressed his resentment of the “repulsive eyesore” that polluted the otherwise beautiful lawn.
Had a group of “student Nazis or communists” built structures on the lawn, another opinion argued, the administration would have already taken the structures down. Accusing the administration of favoritism, the opinion then argued that protest should be conducted in “suitable” locations and manners that did not disrupt the natural beauty of the lawn. Whether or not the POWER students were simply expressing their first amendment rights, their protest certainly caused a disruption, which brought attention to the divestment debate.
As the divestment campaign wore on through May and into the next school term, the POWER protests remained in the Cav Daily headlines. An ad hoc committee on the use of the lawn was created by the president to provide recommendations for how the lawn should be governed. On September 24, 1986, the committee submitted a report that was approved by the Board of Visitors in an October 3rd meeting.
The proposal cites the fragility and the beauty of lawn as primary concerns in creating new regulations which would preserve the space for future generations. The new regulations mandated that “no structure or extended presence shall be permitted on the Lawn except for those needed in connection with official University functions.”
The following Monday, the Cavalier Daily reflected on a student protest that enlivened the Board of Visitors meeting when students stormed the meeting to call for total divestment. The board had so far only supported selected divestment, but the students were energized by protesting “the greatest moral issue of our time.” The large turnout from the students and their bravery in storming in the meeting led Students Against Apartheid Coalition co-coordinator, John Gibson, to declare that the board was “aware now that this is an issue that’s not going to die away.” The board banned shanty towns with the new regulations later that meeting.
The two historical cases demonstrate two ways that the lawn has been regulated over time. While regulation through force captures attention historically, the subtle policy-based regulation also served as a means to repress the voice of protest.
The BOV’s regulation of the Lawn is still in effect, and the incident serves to remind us of other aspects of policy that continue to regulate how bodies are allowed to move around grounds.
The current primary policy enforcement that has been used to regulate university spaces of protest, including the Lawn is “PRM-017: Use of University Facilities and Limits on Direct Solicitation and Advertising.”
The policy clearly forbids the possibility of another occupation of Maury Hall, but more subtly, it leaves a subjective regulation of any protest that can “disrupt normal operations or obstruct access to offices or buildings.” The judgement of what qualifies as disruption is a gray area in the policy that leaves an unclear standard for what constitutes illegal protest.
Now that the lawn is up for reregulation, we should all ask ourselves how new policy will alter the ways in which political mobilization is already regulated. The debate between protected free speech and disruption is not new, but the events of August 11 certainly force us to reconsider our perspective on the argument. If we are to make regulations to the space, we should be mindful how space regulation has been used in the past to suppress political mobilization.
You can stay up to date on the progress of the working group, as well as town hall dates here:
In light of the history and a performance studies framework, we can, and should, ask:
How do these recommendations referee who can move in the space? The question at stake is what do we learn from how public space is constructed?
How will protests, and specifically marches, tactically signify to the past while remaining efficacious in the future?
What role does police protection, and the costs associated with it do to allow or disallow protest on the lawn?
What else can a performance studies framework tell us about how protest is allowed or disallowed around grounds?
And finally, how can we perhaps use performance studies to shape future protests, allowing bodies to occupy the Lawn and other public space in symbolic and materially meaningful ways?