How to Read a Protest: A Must Read for Feminists

How to Read a Protest – University of California Press

The 2017 Women’s March demonstrated a renewed commitment to feminism as a mass movement. In L.A. Kauffman’s brilliant second book, How to Read a Protest: The Art of Organizing and Resistance, this march is given new historicity and context by tracing its heritage back to America’s most iconic (and mythic) mass demonstration, the 1963 March on Washington. The March on Washington is often credited with civil rights policy wins and being the true standard for what a movement should look like, an example for all other movements to emulate. In actuality, the civil rights movement was so much bigger than that march.

How to Read shows that reading the signs carried at a protest will tell you about more than the movement’s demands. It tells you about how the demonstration was organized, how it fit into a larger movement for change, even who did the organizing and sponsorship.

The March on Washington was a top-down, ruthlessly stage-managed demonstration that sidelined women, even though they did the majority of the organizing work. Because of the top-down organizing approach and because it was tempered by involvement with the Kennedy administration, the march failed the grassroots of the civil rights movement. The diversity of beliefs, desires, and demands of African Americans in the movement was traded in for respectability, PR, and a clear message that fit on thousands of matching, pre-printed signs. Home-made signs were forbidden and march security collected and disposed of almost all homemade signs before the march.

How to Read a Protest also uses these images of mass demonstrations to explore a very American paradox. We have the right to assemble, the right of free speech, and yet often our demonstrations do not disrupt. American protests appeal to law and orderliness, in fact, counter-intuitively, some of the biggest demonstrations were the least disruptive to the machinery of the state. Understanding this phenomenon will no doubt restore hope to many women who took up signs and put on pink hats for the Women’s March in 2017, only to live through the rising tide of backlash against sexual assault survivors, the Kavanaugh hearings, the voter disenfranchisement, the dismantling of Obamacare, the looming rollback of Roe.

Kaufmann dives into the controversy that almost prevented the Women’s March from step one: the original working title was “the Million Women March.” Two marches had already had that name. The Million Man March in 1995 and the Million Woman March in 1997, were huge demonstrations of Black Americans. Their struggles became the absent referent of a march ostensibly dreamed up by white women. The original organizers claimed racial ignorance and changed the name. But widespread white defenses of the name, and characteristic white fragility at being “called out” intensified the callings out around the web, until it looked like the march would be more politically toxic than it would be viable. Pressure from women of color secured a racially diverse organizing committee and Kauffman does a great job of showing what it learned, and what it left behind, from 1963.

She does not, however, mention the other, perhaps longer lasting and more vicious attack on the Women’s March, the evil pink pussy hats, and this is interesting, because they are a symbol as easy to read as a sign, although perhaps subject to wider interpretation.

As soon as the pussy hats burst into a grassroots spring in the middle of winter, right behind it came the criticism that the hats were transphobic and racist and emblematic of white feminism. The makers of the hats stated officially that the hats had cat ears to address President “Grab ’em by the pussy,” and were pink because:

“Pink is considered a very female color representing caring, compassion, and love- all qualities that have been derided as weak, but are actually strong. Wearing pink together is a powerful statement that we are unapologetically feminine and we unapologetically stand for women’s rights!”

Owning or reclaiming pink is not possible while doubling-down on compulsory femininity and the gender essentialism that says females are naturally anything, caring and compassionate or feminine for that matter. But that’s not the thrust of the loudest critiques on the web.

Instead it was put forth in media, whether the far corners of LeftBook or in hot takes in major publications, that the hats were pink to color coordinate with a woman’s vulva. Cuz “not all pussies are pink, and not all women have pussies.” And like, this specific criticism was a form of trashing, a purposeful and targeted attack on women’s organizing. The Women’s March was intended to address the specific concerns of those belonging to the class women, you know, sexual violence, reproductive rights, healthcare, persistent financial and employment discrimination, epidemic levels of male violence against women that is perpetually silenced, hatred of lesbian and bisexual women, and the list goes on. There are some oppressions that affect women more than men, or in different ways than men, or which do not affect men at all, and for these reasons it is imperative to organize as women.

Even the march organizers attempted to downplay that sex-based oppression was the heart of why women were righteously enraged. And in this, they really resembled the organizers of the March on Washington, because their efforts at inclusion (in their press materials and on stage at the rally in DC and in sister cities) were an appeal to orderliness, an official party line, equality rather than liberation. And the majority of march goers did not give a fuck. But Susan Cox, writing at Feminist Current said it best,

“In this act, the official march platform became a prime example of the hollow way “intersectionality” is interpreted by liberals to mean “male-inclusive.” While I’m sympathetic to the organizers and the amount of vitriol they received, pressuring them to water down any feminist message, it is still disheartening to see the extent to which women are made to shrink themselves within their own political movements. Even the official platform’s section on Reproductive Freedom is awkwardly sex-neutral and states that reproductive justice is about ensuring reproductive healthcare access for “all people.” (I could have sworn it was specifically about female bodies and that unique thing they do…“Pregnancy,” I think it’s called?)”

The sidestepping Kauffman did with the pink hats is really my biggest quibble with the book.

Published by University of California press and ostensibly about semiotics, I was concerned this book would be too academic to appeal to most readers. Not so at all. It’s a quick and easy read, filled with amazing historical images. Kauffman was a mobilizing coordinator for some of the largest Iraq War demonstrations, and her sources and mentors include some of the most driven organizers in movement building in the US since 1963. If you’ve ever organized a protest or put your theory into praxis, you’re going to find this book a real page-turner.