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January 19, 2021

Bodies on the Line

People put their bodies on the line in very different ways. And a kind of choreography can change a gathering into a protest — or a standoff.

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Watching the coverage from Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, I couldn’t help seeing the way the mostly White, mostly male Trump supporters carried themselves. The ease they felt in their bodies was perhaps best exemplified by the Arkansas man (now under arrest) who put his feet up on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s desk, leaning back in her chair as though he had every right to be there.

He is comfortable — in the midst of committing a crime — in a way that says everything about what it means to have White privilege in the U.S. You get to imagine that every chair is made for you, every women’s desk a place you could put your dirty boots. And, of course, he holds a phone in his hand, taking a selfie as others did with police during their violation of the U.S. Capitol. Surveillance is not a thing these people feared, but, in fact, invited.

protestor

As I watch these images of White people’s nonchalance and disrespect circulate, I don’t see any thing remotely similar to what I saw this summer in protests in support of the Movement for Black Lives. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color took the U.S. streets allies to protest police killing numerous Black people, particularly Minneapolis citizen George Floyd and Louisville, Kentucky citizen Breonna Taylor.

While protesting alongside these courageous leaders this summer, I witnessed a very different scene from what we saw last week. At the time, I shared my account — very much seen from my perspective as someone trained to watch dance — on social media. It feels like the right time to share my earlier account more broadly, so we can remember and honor ways people put their bodies on the line very differently than what we saw last week.



June 4, 2020. Los Angeles, California

I joined an ongoing march mid-way through. Almost every single person marching was wearing a mask, and most were social distancing very well, which isn’t easy to do in such a large group. Chants included “No Justice, No Peace;” “Say their name” to which people responded “George Floyd” or “Breonna Taylor,” but also — and this rung in my ears —sometimes the response to “Say their name” was “Which one?”

After I joined, the first stop on the march was the Los Angeles Police Department, a building to which we were led by a man and woman, each riding their own motorcycle, blaring James Brown’s 1968 “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”

The LAPD building looks like a beautified fortress: tall and solid, the main wall close to the street is vertical cement. The plaza you have to walk through to get into the building is in the shape of a “V.” It was at the opening of the “V” where the police formed a line. These officers wore helmets, but otherwise no “riot gear.” They stood with their hands on their hips, facing us. At several moments, the large crowd took a knee — à la Colin Kaepernick—and chanted for the cops to do the same.

I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be a Black person, an Indigenous person, a Brown person, and/or a Latinx person taking this bodily position in front of a row of police officers.

This was my first time ever taking a knee, and I learned a lot from doing so. It hurts. Especially on the hot cement and especially if you stay there for a long time. It also tapped embodied memories for me of prayer, bowing in hope and respect, asking for support.

kneeling

My understanding was that this crowd first cohered around an event at Grand Park organized by the LA Public Defenders. After about 30 minutes at police headquarters the crowd began to march again.

The crowd was mostly young; my girlfriend and I agreed it was about 85% people under 30. Any time we moved, what seemed to be different young people of color, emerged to guide us.. (I’m using the overarching term “people of color” here, though the leadership seemed — to my eye — young Black and Brown people. I have, however, neither the knowledge or understanding of the community to say exactly. I am a White woman; I was a guest.)

There were also many in the crowd with “medic” written across their face masks, and red crosses taped to their backpacks. As the day wore on countless young people of many races circulated handing out free water, snacks, hand sanitizer, and then returning with garbage bags and, in one case, a wheelbarrow, to pick up all trash. People also jumped out of cars to hand out water and snacks.

I’ve never felt so cared for in a protest.

If anything, I felt bad I’d only brought enough water for myself. And it turned out not to be enough. One of the police’s tactics at our next stop, Los Angeles City Hall, was to push us out of the shade.

We were at City Hall longer than we had been at LAPD. Chanting continued. So did the kneeling and the requests for cops to join us in this form of prayerful, still protest. The group was somewhat internally focused for the first 30-45 minutes, chanting and inspiring more chanting from within. As the temperatures rose, some protestors migrated to sit on a 14-foot wall that circled the building, putting them a bit higher than the group. About 20-25 people sat on the wall resting, their posture very relaxed, in groups of two and three.

At City Hall, the police presence initially concentrated around the building’s front door. That changed when — with no warning — a group of police charged around the corner, pushing people off the tall wall. The police were all in riot gear: face shields, helmets, and holding the long rifles that fire rubber bullets. Immediately our group’s young leaders moved us away from the wall, including those who’d just been pushed or had to jump down.

I shift from description to analysis here purposefully. I study choreography — how people orchestrate their bodies and others to create social, emotional, and kinesthetic responses. What I saw at the protest at Los Angeles City Hall was choreography produced by the police to create fear.

The police came suddenly, demonstrating force to a small, unarmed group, who were, frankly, merely resting and relaxing in public space. Once the police had “taken” the wall, standing behind it in a row, each officer stood about six feet apart, facing us with their hands on their rifles. Whereas the police at LAPD had put their hands on their hips, arms akimbo, these officers communicated strongly they had rifles and were ready to use them.

I was scared. I turned to my girlfriend to make sure she was ready to run. I genuinely feared that was what was going to be needed next.

Quickly, with much guidance from one young Brown woman with a mohawk, the group moved back, far away from City Hall. But now the group had turned its attention —previously more inward — directly toward this new row of officers. The officers had placed themselves in front and above, seemingly goading the protestors to face them. What once felt like a gathering, now, spatially, had become a standoff. Those who’d helped move us back, took a knee, and began leading chants to ask the police to do the same. (I couldn’t help but think about an NPR interview I’d heard four days prior that said LAPD is considered to be a police department that focuses training on de-escalation.)

On my knee this time, in front of armed and ready police officers, I noticed how vulnerable you are in this position. Even if you’re in great shape (and I wasn’t), getting off your knee to move takes time. There is the effort to push down that has to happen before you can rise, and, because we were now all facing the police line and the building, we would also have to pivot to the right or left to find a direction we could run.

During one of these periods of kneeling, more police arrived, running quickly onto the walled-off area. To make room for the new arrivals, the already present police also ran further along the wall. For a moment, I thought they were all going to descend the steps and come into our group. Eventually the police stopped moving, so that now an officer stood about every three feet along the balcony above us. There were many police, and, it seemed, there could also be more. The rising numbers of police we could see seemed to point to an infinite number who could just keep coming.

The sense of the vulnerability was even more present as the protesting leader group called for everyone to put their hands up, while chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” I’ve seen this iconic gesture for years now, since Michael Brown’s murder by Ferguson police in 2014. I’ve also frequently taught dance scholar Anusha Kedhar’s writing about this gesture (and others) in The New York Times. Kedhar describes the gesture as layered, “a plea not to shoot as well as the bodily imperative to lift one’s hands up in solidarity.”

Hands up

Given that I have studied and been moved by the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture, I didn’t really expect it to hit me so hard in the moment. But facing that row of police officers who’d just demonstrated what is sometimes described as a “non-violent show of force,” I felt my body differently.

As a White woman, I have absolutely no conception of what it would feel like to have to do this gesture as a person of color in front of police. In all the times I’ve read about and seen Black activists take that position, I’ve never thought to try it myself. All I can say is that with my hands up over my head, palms forward, I realized just how available and vulnerable my chest and torso were to whatever was to come.

If you’re reading this and you’re a White person, I’d invite you to stand up and put your hands up. And leave them in their air for a while. Your arms get tired.

After about 90 minutes at City Hall, the group began to move again. We marched in a large circle through Downtown. As we crossed intersections, stopping traffic, most car drivers honked. Some climbed out their windows to raise a fist in solidarity, many had their own Black Lives Matters signs they waved out windows. Again there was “non-violent show of force” from police, always met by smaller groups of protesters kneeling before them.

What I saw in general was incredible leadership from Black and Brown young people, kindness and care among the thousands of protestors—both for one another and the city. The only escalation I saw was from police to which young people always quickly responded, calming sometimes large crowds. “Good vibes only, good vibes only” was a regular instruction.

In all, I saw only one person do anything against the law. Towards the end of the march, one person (their face covered) tagged a building with spray paint.

Here’s what they wrote: “BLM,” a peace sign, and a heart.


Clare Croft
Clare Croft
Clare Croft is a dance historian and theorist, dramaturg and curator. She is the author of "Dancers as Diplomats: American Choreography in Culture Exchange," the editor of "Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings," and the curator of the EXPLODE queer dance festival. Her writing about dance has appeared in The Washington Post and the Austin American Statesman, among other academic and journalism publications. She is Associate Professor of Dance & American Culture at the University of Michigan.

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