You shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day. Did you know that? (And did you know that its proliferation comes from class-based discrimination? In response to the burgeoning middle classes of the early 20th century, strict rules had to be made to let the nouveau-riche know what’s up.)
(Over)hearing this phrase several times in the past few days has me paying a bit more attention to clothing. Especially in protest. So in celebration of Labor Day, here’s quick smattering of how color is being used rhetorically in protest:
While I don’t think our Labor-Day-Dress-Codes seep south of the border, protesters in Mexico got all their white-wearing done just in time anyway. Just a few days ago, over a hundred thousand people marched through the streets of Mexico City, protesting a recent wave of killings and kidnappings. Combined with the silence during marching and the thousands of candles lit by protesters at night, wearing white for the expression of solidarity is effective in my opinion, if only because it draws on the centuries-old binary (well, about 2041 years old) of White = Good, Peaceful / Black = Evil, Aggressive. Binaries may be boring, but they work.
The Democratic National Convention in Denver just finished up last week. As far as protesting goes, the usual (predictable) tactics we used. However, Denver Police took no chances with the convention on their turf — the streets were swarming with futuristically outfitted officers (paid for with a 50 million dollar grant from the Federal government) . As one of my friends reports from the frontlines, “It’s the new Cool Fascismo look.”
One of the protest groups at the DNC where color plays a central role in communicating their message is CODEPINK, an all female collective that assembled in order to put pressure on the Bush administration to get out of Iraq.
This is what their website has to say about the name: “The name CODEPINK plays on the Bush Administration’s color-coded homeland security alerts — yellow, orange, red — that signal terrorist threats. While Bush’s color-coded alerts are based on fear and are used to justify violence, the CODEPINK alert is a feisty call for women and men to ‘wage peace.'”
CODEPINK draws on the carnivalesque in its tactics, with wild outfits being encouraged. Pink brings a femininity — a certain kind of it, at least — to the protests, perhaps opening doors to some by showing protests aren’t all black-clad dudes chanting angry rants. In fact, a lot of the pictures on their website show middle-aged women, all smiles. The color, it seems, expands access to protest, a gateway of sorts. An argument could be made that it changes how others view the color too, because it seeks empowerment through the quintessential “girly” color.
In the most disturbing video I’ve seen come out of the DNC protests, witness below a cop jack a CODEPINK activist in the chest, knocking her to the ground. And when you watch it, please don’t think, “This is an anomaly.” It’s not.
Also in attendance, of course, at the DNC (and now quite active at the RNC) are Black Bloc affinity groups. While comprised mostly of anarchists, I’m pretty sure they’re open to anyone who’s anti-capitalist. Black Blocs got a lot of press after their central role in shutting down hearings at the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” Anti-WTO riots. They’re also the scape-goat of many who are convinced that protesting would make great strides if only it weren’t for those (Scooby-Doo voice) “meddling kids.” Sadly, these groups are more often than not presented as simply “misguided youth” who think wearing black is cool. I’ve known even the most critical of thinkers to fall prey to this dismissal. One way to start reconceptualizing the Black Bloc in an effort to combat this reductionism, is to explain that it’s not an organized group. It’s a tactic. Which is to say, it’s rhetorical.
One website describes one aspect of the tactic thus:
In it’s essential form, each participant of a Black Bloc wears somewhat of a uniform (see the Clothing section). The idea of wearing this uniform is that if every single person in the Bloc looks relatively alike, it is hard for the police to determine which individual did what. For instance, if a Black Bloc participant throws a brick at a store window and runs into the Bloc, she will easily blend in with everyone else. However, if a person wearing normal street clothes happens to throw a brick and run into the Bloc, chances are that she will have been filmed or photographed and later caught by the police.
This makes it all sound very pragmatic, which I’m a little hesitant to accept wholesale. There’s also the undeniable attribution of “trouble” attached to black. Which in this case is quite purposeful. Wearing all black and marching in a sea of black works to put you in a certain mindset, one that perhaps steels you for the fight that’s about to come.
And I suppose that’s one of the main points of this post, even though it’s obvious: Different colors put one in different mindsets — and this is especially true when it comes to expressing solidarity with large numbers of protesters.