Many in the Bay Area are planning to express their feelings about this weekend’s rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley — organized by the Patriot Prayer organization, which typically attracts white supremacists and far-right groups to its events — by marching and waving signs.
But some are choosing to take more offbeat and artistic approaches to protest.
The organizers of the LovedUp Mobile Dance Rally, a freeform dance party scheduled to wend its way from Dolores Park to Civic Center, expect around 1,000 people to show up on the afternoon Saturday, Aug. 26. Participants plan a political stand by boogieing to songs like “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Organizer Daveed Walzer Panadero came up with the idea of a dance protest because he neither wanted to ignore the Patriot Prayer event, nor feed into what he sees as its aim of inciting violence and generating media publicity.
“The goal was to respond with a better alternative — one that’s bigger, brighter, and more inclusive,” Walzer Panadero says. “And hopefully draws more people who might not normally come to a political protest or march.”
Walzer Panadero and his team are asking participants to bring FM radios and boom boxes, as they plan to use an FM transmitter to share music as well as communicate with the crowd.
He believes dance is the perfect medium for protest because it’s so universal. “Not knowing the language, not knowing the culture, you can participate,” Walzer Panadero says.
Many creative approaches
The dance gathering is just one of many ways in which Bay Area residents are using the arts to protest the far-right rallies.
Michael Franti & Spearhead, Brothers Comatose, comedian Marga Gomez and other Bay Area artists are among those scheduled to perform at a Saturday afternoon “Peace, Music and Laughter” concert at the Civic Center.
And a group of clowns plans to convene at Crissy Field, the site of Saturday’s controversial rally, with balloons, red noses and other accoutrements of their craft. The intention, as the organizers put it on their Facebook event page, is “to mercilessly ridicule any neo-nazis, white supremacists, or alt-right trolls who dare show their face in San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, on a less confrontational front, the bucolic San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers is the backdrop for The Cutest Lil Counter Protest, a family-friendly event on Saturday morning involving a kids’ costume parade and a group photo in front of the DeYoung Museum’s Summer of Love Wall.
Changing minds unlikely
It’s unlikely that these creative forms of counter-protest will win over people from the other side, especially since most of the artistic activities are scheduled to happen in locations several miles away from the sites of the rallies they’re reacting to.
Concerns over public safety have caused the organizers of some acivities, like the mobile dance rally, to change their plans. Walzer Panadero says his group’s original intention was to convene at Marina Green in close proximity to the Patriot Prayer rally. Now the dancing will be happening further afield.
“I don’t have any illusions that our protest is going to draw them over and change their minds,” Walzer Panadero says of Patriot Prayer’s followers. “I would not be surprised if select people have a genuine interest in having conversations. But I’d be very wary of interactions on the day of the event. Our interest at this point is maintaining a safe space and distance.”
Power of art to make change
Sometimes these sorts of mass protests involving art can bring about actual change.
One of the most famous examples is what came to be popularly known as “The Singing Revolution,” where the mass public singing of patriotic songs in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to independence in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Closer to home and on a more modest scale, groups like the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have used their art to draw impressive crowds and media attention for various political causes.
The Gay Men’s Chorus has adopted the Holly Near song “Singing for Our Lives” as a sort of protest anthem. Near wrote the song the night Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978. Ever since, the Gay Men’s Chorus has performed it at rallies, such as a 2009 Prop 8 gathering to fight for equal marriage rights.
Gay Men’s Chorus executive director Chris Verdugo says the ensemble is considering whether to join the anti-Patriot Prayer rally protests over the weekend. “Given the opportunity to sing some white supremacists down, I think we would be up for that,” Verdugo says. “We’ll surround them with love and with song.”
Bay Area approach to protest
The Bay Area has long been a hotbed for unconventional protests involving art. “There doesn’t seem to be anything more San Franciscan than coming out in bright colors, with joy and expression as a form of protest, and tie that expression into effective action,” says Walzer Panadero, a fourth generation San Francisco native.
The tradition has its roots in the 1960s, with notable actions like The San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 1967 tour of university campuses.
The San Francisco-based agit prop theater company performed an anti-Vietnam war satire at the same time the Dow Chemical Company, the manufacturer of napalm, was scouting around the same campuses looking for recruits. The Mime Troupe formed a marching band to energize anti-Dow, anti-war demonstrations and gained national attention and awards for its efforts.
For his part, Joey Gibson, the founder of Patriot Prayer, welcomes artistic approaches to protest.
“These are the people that I want to see, that I want to connect with,” Gibson says. “These people are coming in with a positive message, right? It’s so much better than these gangs that dress up in all black, cover their faces, and they try to intimidate, try to use fear and violence and hatred.”
Gibson is calling his event a “free speech” rally and is making a concerted effort to distance Patriot Prayer from white supremacist groups, even though Gibson’s rallies have attracted militiamen and white nationalists in the past.
He points out that several hip-hop artists of color like Work Dirty and The Gatlin will perform at his event, and says his team wants to give voice to those that oppose his viewpoint. “We might have an open mike so protesters can speak,” he says.
“The fact that people are willing to come in and have dance-offs and stuff like that, that’s awesome and I respect them,” Gibson says. “And I hope they have an opportunity to hear what we have to say and hear some of our speeches, because they’ll learn that we actually have a lot in common.”
You can find a list of many of the events going on in protest against this weekend’s Patriot Prayer rallies in the Bay Area here.