“I was in a die-in!”
One of my teenaged piano students bubbled over with news of everything happening at her high school last week, beginning with teacher-led discussions about racism, grand juries, the criminal justice system, last century’s Civil Rights movement. Classroom lessons inspired some students to stage a die-in.
“What was that like for you?” I asked. She told me that she thought about Mike Brown and Eric Garner while she lay beside her classmates in the school lobby.
“What did your friends say about it?” Most felt good about the protest, she thought. The only disagreement was about whether or not it was disrespectful to sit up and take a “selfie” in the middle of the action. Some said yes, some said no. Hmmm, I didn’t know what to say about activism etiquette in the Digital Age.
VARIATIONS ON A TACTIC:
FROM BREASTFEED-INS TO WADE-INS
As luck would have it, I’ve been working on a chapter of my book (on women’s nonviolent actions) about experiments with physical intervention, a form of nonviolent direct action — specifically sit-ins and their variations: breastfeed-ins, die-ins, dance-ins, glitter-ins, howl-ins, kiss-ins, pray-ins, pee-ins, sleep-ins, read-ins, wade-ins. The actions themselves might be risky for those taking part, but the variations are endlessly creative and make this chapter fun to write! I’ll share more about these in future blog posts. Stay tuned.
The tactic of disrupting business-as-usual with physical intervention reminds me of the old protest song “It Isn’t Nice” by Malvina Reynolds, made popular by Judy Collins. (See YouTube clip below.) The refrain notes that blocking doorways “isn’t nice” and concludes, “but if that’s freedom’s price, we don’t mind.”
According to nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp, sit-ins date back to the mid-1800s when the tactic was used by antislavery activists challenging publicly segregated spaces. It was picked up by Native Americans in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the tactic was tried by members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in Chicago. Later, lunch counter sit-ins were used extensively during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.
Die-ins are a more recent variation. One of the earliest took place on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, when Harvard Ecology Action sponsored a die-in at Logan International Airport to protest environmental pollution. In May 1970, 150 demonstrators staged a silent “die-in” in Seattle to protest the shipping of nerve gas through Washington state. In 1981, on International Women’s Day, 3,000 women in Ramstien, West Germany lay down in front of a NATO airbase to simulate the effect of a nuclear attack.
Last year, inspired by a massive cyclists’ die-in in Amsterdam in the 1970s, 1,000 cyclists staged a die-in in London to call attention to the need for improved road safety. They were asked “to lie on the pavement with your bicycles, turn on your lights and let them flash in the memories of people killed and injured in the last eight years.”
DIE-INS: THE TACTIC DU JOUR
In the wake of the police killings of two unarmed black men, Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, die-ins have proliferated as a tactic. Some have been timed to last 4 1/2 minutes, symbolic of the 4 1/2 hours Brown’s body was left in the street, untended.
Visual and therefore deemed newsworthy, die-ins help sustain media attention and effectively disrupt business-as-usual.
In recent days, lawyers in suits and ties chanted “Black lives matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” from pavements in front of courthouses across the nation. Medical students at over forty colleges staged a well-organized “White Coat Die-In.” Legislators, teachers, and clergy have laid down in solidarity.
In libraries, shopping malls, bridges, streets, in quiet towns and hectic cities, across the U.S. and in places around the world, on cold pavements and on the well-trod floors of major traffic hubs like Grand Central Station — everywhere these days, budding activists and seasoned protesters are lying down for a cause. When they stand up again, they often feel a new sense of empowerment.
A NEW YEAR’S WISH
At dawn, on New Year’s Day, in 1983, at Greenham Common women’s peace encampment in England, forty-four women crept through the frosty early light, propped a ladder against the fence protecting nuclear silos, threw blankets over the razor-wire, and dropped a second ladder down the other side, then scrambled over the top, one after the other, hearts pounding.
When they’d made it over, they rushed, all together, holding hands, up the mud slopes to the top of a silo which housed U.S.-owned weapons intended for World War III. Before the police closed in, they formed a circle and danced, sang, and cheered. They held up a sign, “PEACE 83” for the TV reporters who had been alerted to the “dance-in.” The iconic image of women dancing on the nuclear silo, silhouetted against the dawn of a new day, inspired and sustained many in the women’s peace movement throughout the 1980s.
I offer this image of an earlier New Year’s Day action to inspire us all not to give in to world-weary resignation in the face of so much suffering and wrong, but to greet 2015 with a renewed commitment to fight the good fight — together. Happy New Year, everyone!
TO GO DEEPER
“The Methods of Nonviolent Intervention” in The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Part Two, The Methods of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp, 1973.
“A Brief History of Die-Ins, the Iconic Protests for Eric Garner and Michael Brown” by Marina Koren, in the National Journal, December 4, 2014.
Local news report of the “White Coat Die-In” at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, December 10, 2014.
Judy Collins sings “It Isn’t Nice” by Malvina Reynolds