More than a Hill of Beans: Political Protests Face Pressure to Be Noticed

As the temperature heats up around the country, so does the political climate surrounding this year’s presidential election. The city of Philadelphia approved twenty-eight permits for demonstrations and marches during this week’s Democratic National Convention, but one in particular is gaining significant media attention: the world’s largest “fart-in.”

This demonstration seeks to highlight what some activists see as the putrid nature of our democratic process. Protestors plan to consume large quantities of flatulence-inducing beans six hours before entering the convention hall with the intent to pass gas during Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech tonight. Cheri Honkala, organizer of the event and national coordinator for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, told U.S. News & World Report, “It shows the level of absolute disgust that we’re at—we think we’re going to remember 2016 as the year we begin to bury the two corporate political parties. It’s really a shame—this whole thing does stink. They listen to corporations, and they don’t listen to anti-poverty activists.”

Movements recognize that headlines lead to an increase in awareness, so the pressure’s on to attract the attention of the media—and that means getting creative. In a society where commonplace bodily functions are taboo, sometimes the protests that make headlines are the ones that take advantage of such taboos. Controversial protests get attention, but do they achieve results?

In 2009, Canadians dropped their pants in protest of a privately owned border security balloon equipped with a camera sensitive enough to read the name off a ship nine miles away. The experimental balloon, owned by True North Logistics and Sierra Nevada, was stationed above the St. Clair River between Michigan and Ontario as a demonstration, with the intent to sell the technology to the US government. Although the protest (called “Moon the Balloon”) gained media attention, it ultimately did not affect the corporation’s plans for the surveillance balloon.

However, that same year in India, a group of young women started the successful Pink Chaddi campaign in response to violent moral policing. A group of forty members of the  right-wing Hindu group Sri Ram Sena had attacked women in a pub in the city of Mangalore for drinking and dancing with men, which Sri Ram Sena perceived to be immoral behavior. The group’s leader, Pramod Muthalik, supported the violence and vowed to forcibly marry all unwed couples seen dating on Valentine’s Day. In response, the Pink Chaddi campaign encouraged women to send pink underwear (chaddi) to Muthalik. The protest was widely successful both locally and abroad, in attracting media attention and more participants. Just before Valentine’s Day, Muthalik and his followers called off the threat, and the state government placed them  in preventive custody.

However, some protests, in a bid to seek attention through controversy, take place without awareness of societal nuances. Due to the intersectional nature of oppression, success in one movement shouldn’t come at the expense or exclusion of other marginalized groups. Although controversy attracts media, it sometimes perpetuates the very systems it seeks to confront.

The first SlutWalk, for example, took off in Toronto in 2011 after a police officer suggested  that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” to evade sexual assault. Women dressed in clothing of their choosing for the walks to bring attention to the rights of women to dress however they wish, free of the presumption that they’re “asking for it”—“it” being unwanted male attention or, even worse, rape. The controversial protest quickly took off worldwide and acted as a catalyst for mobilization, but it was also challenged by advocates within the feminist movement for being insensitive and exclusionary. In an open letter, Black Women’s Blueprint stated, “As Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves ’slut’ without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is.”

Protests sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) often feature unclothed women in situations of abuse to make acts of violence against other animals relatable. These exploitative campaigns are constructed to garner as much attention as possible, but they do so by further perpetuating the commodification and abuse of women’s bodies. These types of campaigns bring to light the objectification of one marginalized group (other animals), while directly perpetuating the denigration of women’s bodies.

In general, activists ought to question the extent to which media exposure is worth it. When advocating for systematic change, should creating controversy be a factor? And what if that controversy perpetuates disempowerment for one group, even as it raises awareness about the oppression of another?  The “fart-in” is an absurd and fairly harmless political protest, however it does raise questions about the pressure (gastrointestinal or otherwise) social movements are under to be noticed.