We were planning to blog together tonight, and we have a blog topic lined up. But we don’t see how, after the events in Washington D.C., we can blog about anything except what’s happening. And we both feel that everything is still unfolding and it’s too soon to say anything useful. So we’re going to hold off for a couple of days and come back with a carefully thought-out essay on what’s happening.
Last Friday (which only seems like a year ago), when federal officers with no IDs or agency markings were facing down crowds of peaceful protesters in Portland, Oregon, sometimes using rubber bullets, sometimes carrying people not charged with anything away in unmarked vans to undisclosed locations, a young White woman stepped out of the crowd of protesters towards the officers, and took off her clothes, except for a black face mask and a stocking cap.
The officers shot pepper spray bullets near her but not at her. She did some ballet poses, and sat down in a cross-legged yoga position. According to Richard Reed, writing for the Los Angeles Times, “At one point, a fellow protester, clothed, carrying a homemade shield, darted in front of the woman, angling to protect her. But the woman sidestepped him. He jumped out of the way, perhaps realizing that he made them both a target.”
Eventually, the attackers broke ranks and left, and the protesters dispersed more peacefully than on most nights before or since.
So what happened?
An OregonLive photographer named David Killen is quoted in the Times article as saying “It would have been incredibly painful to be shot with any of those munitions with no clothes on.” That’s just funny: it’s hardly any less painful to be shot with rubber bullets wearing a t-shirt and summer pants.
She was extremely brave, because she was willing to make herself into a singular, visible, separable target. She was banking on a very particular kind of sexism among the feds: that they would not know how to face a conventionally pretty, young, White body with the weaponry they have no conscience using on a wide variety of other bodies. She turned out to be right; but it was a gamble.
She’s been criticized for doing this at all, because — of course — a Black woman who tried the same thing would be either dead, “legally” arrested, or detained somewhere with no charges and no due process. That’s why we laud this woman for doing it: she was using her privilege, and her courage, to try and stop the violence in the moment — and it worked.
She was also part of a long tradition, not so much either the Portlandia tradition or Lady Godiva, both of whom are cited in the LA Times, but an anti-war, anti-fascist tradition of using the way powerful white men love, covet, fear, and hate naked bodies as a tactic against those men. Here’s a protest picture from July 4, 1970, when then-president Richard Nixon tried to hold a right-wing rally on the National Mall which ended up with Nixon supporters and counter-protesters fleeing in a cloud of tear gas.
We live in a twisted, unhealthy culture where nakedness is secret, taboo, and tempting. Otherwise, no naked body would ever be able to turn away a phalanx of storm troopers.
But we use the tools we have, and we applaud this woman and all her predecessors for using them well.