THR Web Features   /   June 18, 2020

Protest and Spectacle in Lafayette Square

Protest and spectacle are not merely symbols.

John D. Inazu

( Protesters react to tear gas at George Floyd protests in Washington, D.C. Rosa Pineda via Wikimedia Commons.)

Protests are performative displays—they are spectacles. They convey messages not only in spoken or printed words, but also through symbols and symbolic acts: standing, sitting, speaking, and not speaking. Not every action is deliberate and symbolic, but many are. And often these actions are most powerful collectively.  Their aggregation conveys a larger message of anguish, solidarity, restlessness, or anger. 

The writers of the New Testament described the early church as an embodied form of protest.  The first Christians were known as the ecclesia—the assembly. Political theorist Sheldon Wolin notes that the ecclesia of the early church was “a polity, over other political entities.” In other words, the church itself was birthed as a kind of protest movement, pointing to a different way of life against the ruling order.

Centuries later, the Quaker William Penn lay claim to the tradition of the assembly as the gathered church in his protest against worship restrictions imposed by English authorities. Penn’s protest would in turn frame the debates over whether to include a right of assembly in the Bill of Rights. Today, our Constitution recognizes the right of peaceable assembly in the First Amendment.  And earlier this month in Lafayette Square, peaceful protesters exercised the right of assembly born out of the spectacle of religious worship.

Donald Trump, our reality television president, is not naïve about the power of spectacle. From his insistence (against all visual evidence) of record-breaking crowds at his inauguration, to his short-lived effort to have a military parade in Washington, this president has chased after the spectacle of public displays. Confronted with dissent embodied in Lafayette Square, the lure of the spectacle proved irresistible for him when he sent out horses, clubs, explosives, and tear gas (yes, the chemical kind) to trample protesters, journalists, and bystanders.  This was followed the spectacle of silence: an empty park and a vacant path for the president to process triumphantly to St. John’s Episcopal Church. And finally, the culmination of the spectacle as unvarnished political stunt: the raising of the Bible. “A Bible,” to quote the president. 

The president’s performative display in Lafayette Square was a far cry from the kind of spectacle favorably described in Christian Scripture.  To the contrary, it depended on violent force inflicted upon the bodies of protestors, and the hoisting of the Bible as political stunt.  This perversion of spectacle is closer to the force exerted by the powers and authorities, that which is ultimately triumphed over by the cross.

Until then, the perverted spectacle underscores the need for the spectacle of protest, and the transformative work that follows.  The latter only happens when practices and commitments outlast the moment of the spectacle, when hash tags and book clubs give way to concrete actions and costly sacrifice.  But the spectacle of protest can still claim limits on the ruling order as it points toward the work ahead.  For this reason, its enactment must be safeguarded against the kind of unlawful curtailment that unfolded in Lafayette Square.  That is, until the day when there is no more need for protest or spectacle, when “every knee shall bow”—even the knees of those who are “very much against kneeling in general.”