Noah Simblist: Insurgent Political Theater: Subjects-in-revolt In Colombia and Palestine

Insurgent Political Theater: Subjects-in-revolt In Colombia and Palestine

By Noah Simblist and Beatriz Balanta

March Journal, 2022

Protests are one of the basic building blocks of the political grammar of the oppressed. Protests erupt and die down, they are noisy rivers of people chanting, yelling, demanding. Following the confluence of protests in Palestine and Colombia in spring 2021, we were struck by the images that circulated about them. We asked ourselves: is there something similar about these protests? or at least their representation? One year later, what can we make of this confluence?

Can we discern an aesthetic taxonomy of the protests in Palestine and Colombia? There are the manifestations of rage against the machine we have come to expect: Burning tires, flags, signs and banners, or photographs of the dead.On the other hand, there are protest tactics that subvert the normative expectations of forms of revolt: fire breathers, cosplay, and voguing in front of the armored agents of the state. Protests are, whether they utilize normative language or unexpected forms, theatrical performances, orchestrated for a variety of audiences—fellow subjects in distress, the oppressor, the ally. Given that protests are multivalent and culturally specific, we ask: what were the political and, more importantly, the sentimental objectives of performances staged by subjects-in-revolt[1] in Colombia and Palestine in spring 2021? How are these informed by other protests in these regions during the last few decades?

But first, before we address these questions, we present flashbacks, an introduction to each of us, and our relationships to these places and the ways that we have each encountered protest on the ground:

Beatriz Balanta: I grew up in Colombia but I have spent most of my adult life at the intersection between Colombia and the United States. When I arrived in Boston, I had already been scarred by racialization and contemporary iterations of colonialism. However, I was not yet a political subject. Protests ushered me into the field of politics.

April 1992: I still remember the heat wave of excitement, fear, and adrenaline that engulfed my body as I marched through the streets of NYC after the acquittal of the police officers charged in the brutal beating of Rodney King. Walking and chanting with other people of color, but more importantly, participating in workshops in preparation of the march began to sour the racist stew I had been fed my whole life.

December 1992: I landed in Colombia. Unlike the year before, the fabric of social life in Cali was now perforated by hand grenades, daily protests, the assassination of political leaders, check points and curfews. This chaotic situation followed President Gaviria´s declaration of a “state of internal commotion” a month before, which he instituted after a series of coordinated bomb attacks in Bogotá, Medellín, Cúcuta, Armenia, Pereira and Turbo. Colombian history has been a violent one, peace is not the norm. It is an exception to a perpetual state of war. The years between 1988 and 1991 were an exception to armed conflict. After more than three decades at war with different guerrilla groups, the government began a series of peace talks that culminated with successful negotiations with the 19 April Movement (M-19), the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and Quintín Lame.

In 1993, a few months after I walked the streets of NYC in communal anger and defiance with thousands of other black and brown people, I started my first volunteering job at an NGO that fought against discrimination in the Boston public school system. For years thereafter I worked as a community organizer because I wanted to understand and prevent the continued abuse and torture of black people at all levels of our social structure. I chanted on the streets and became adept at the complex grinding work that organizes protests and, most importantly, work to create more just societies.

After years of helping organize and participating in protests, I have come to fear them. When protests erupt, I cannot help to think to myself: “What is the point? They will kill you.”

Noah Simblist: I have spent a great deal of time in Israel-Palestine over the course of my life. I grew up in Jewish and Zionist communities in the US and Europe but spent most summers in “the holy land” as a child, eventually living in Jerusalem for some time as an adult. As I became secular and my politics shifted towards Palestinian solidarity, I focussed my work as an artist, writer and curator on the political tensions of the region. For one particular project, I participated in a building program for the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD) to research an essay that I was writing about Yael Bartana’s Summer Camp (2007). ICAHD is a NGO that, in partnership with Palestinians from various parts of civil society in the West Bank, gathered international activists to rebuild Palestinian homes that have been demolished by Israeli authorities. Housing demolition is part of a brutal matrix of control that administers the occupation, by limiting Palestinian urban development.[2] The rebuilding is an act of civil disobedience to make visible the absence of destroyed homes.

One evening during this building camp, we heard about an imminent housing demolition that was to occur in Beit Hanina, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem. We packed into a van and when we arrived at the house, dozens of people were sitting throughout the house, drinking coffee and smoking. We were told to wait. I spoke to one Palestinian young man who wanted to explain to me the humiliations that he had encountered going through Israeli checkpoints for work or visiting family. A group gathered around him and offered their own similar experiences. The night went on like this until early morning.

At around 4am, we heard a commotion. Someone shouted that there were military trucks headed our way. The hubbub grew louder and everyone spilled outside, discussing what to do. Someone said that we should create barricades, using dumpsters to block the driveway and access to the house. We then ran inside and closed heavy metal shutters in front of all the windows, locked the doors, and sat down on the floor. The crowd chanted Allah Hu Akbar/God is Great! over and over again until we heard a banging on the door - bang! Bang! BANG! A swarm of soldiers moved into the house. They were in full riot gear, with helmets and black balaclava masks. They held rifles that they pointed at us and some had dogs that entered barking and snarling. They soon picked us up, beat us, and pushed us outside the house. In order to clear out the upstairs they used flash-bang grenades and teargas. We were cordoned off into an area on the street until the last of us were evacuated. At this point, a number of people from the neighborhood joined those of us that had been in the house and the street protest began. There were chants of political slogans and a line of men started praying. Palestinian flags were waved as some Israeli soldiers kept in formation to repel us from the house while others were mounted on horseback, ready for possible crowd control. In between there was milling about, calls to other NGOs and the UN for help. The whole thing was over once the house was destroyed mid-morning by large bulldozers.

* * *

Colombia and Palestine: where necropolitics converge

What is it about the aesthetics of protest in Colombia and Palestine that allows us the opportunity to bring them together in analysis? Both countries have a history of extreme state violence and popular resistance. Palestine under occupation has been designed by the Israeli government as a space of intense colonial violence and as a macabre lab. It is a place where Israel invents, develops, and tests its military products before selling technologies of death to the highest bidder.[3] In the 1980s the Israeli government sold the Guatemalan right-wing military junta sophisticated communication and computer technology that allowed the tracking, kidnapping and ultimately murder of leftwing “subersivos.”[4] During Argentina´s guerra sucia, Israel provided sophisticated weapons to the Argentinian state, including missiles, missile-alert radar systems, and antitank mines. In his 2001 autobiography, Carlos Castaño one of the founders the Auto-Defensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, an umbrella organization of the Colombian armed right wing, or paramilitares, disclosed that he spent more than a year (1984-1985) training in Israeli military schools and Hebrew University. Castaño also revealed that his idea of “autodefensa,” distributing guns to a chosen group of people to defend a cause, he copied from the Israelis, a country where, according to Castaño, “every citizen is a potential soldier.”[5] In 2010, Colombia bought Israeli drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against the FARC. These drones were tested in Gaza in 2008 and 2009 during Operation Cast Lead.

Colombia and Palestine: the protests of spring 2021

While the political and military elites of Israel and Latin America pride themselves in their collusion to collaboratively develop transnational murderous connections, at the same time, there have been multiple declarations of solidarity among insurgents. In Spring 2021 this was amplified by the simultaneous eruption of protest in both regions. In Palestine, following the demolition and occupation of Palestinian homes by Israelis in Sheik Jarah, protests and violent crackdowns grew in Jerusalem’s old city, including at the Muslim holy site of Haram al Sharif. In response to this Israeli aggression, Hamas launched rockets and Israel responded with airstrikes in Gaza that leveled whole city blocks. The confrontation killed more than 250 Palestinians and over a dozen Israelis.

In Colombia, protests erupted around the same time. A 24 hour national strike was called for by the Unified National Command (Comando Nacional Unitario), a coalition of labor unions comprised of the CUT; the General Confederation of Workers (CGT); the Workers Confederation of Colombia (CTC) the Education Workers Federation (FECODE); and the Confederations of Retired Workers (CPC and CDP). The government of Iván Duque reacted with extreme violence which ignited the protests that began on April 28 and prolonged the strike, which lasted for more than a month.

Colombia and Palestine: where histories diverge

While there are intersecting histories for Colombia and Palestine, they also diverge in a number of important ways. First, Colombia, as a modern nation state began as a colony. The Spanish colonial project began in 1525 and included the expropriation of land, the subjugation of indigenous populations, kidnapping and enslaving people from Africa and the establishment of an economic system based on extraction economies, mainly agriculture and mining. Like many other parts of Latin America, the anti-colonial independence movement gave way to a new nation-state but many of the oppressive anti-Black and anti-Indigenous sentiments and socio-economic structures of the colonial regime remain to this day. Colombia is a sovereign state that exists in a constant battle with colonial ghosts.

Palestine, on the other hand, has a history going back thousands of years with cycles of sovereignty that have allowed various degrees of self determination by its local population. While there is a history of Palestinian nationalism that emerged during the late Ottoman period, through the post WWI British mandate and continues continues to this day,[6] Palestinians have been stripped of sovereignty and since 1948 survive under what Achille Mbembe has characterized as a “necropolitical” colonial regime. According to Mbembe, Israel is a state that deploys its weaponry (bombs, check points, land expropriation, etc.) “in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creati[on] of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead”.[7] Mbembe observes that the Israeli model of colonial occupation is transacted through a combination of territorial fragmentation, vertical sovereignty and splintering occupation which results in the absolute domination over the inhabitants of the occupied territory.[8]

When thinking about the histories of Colombia and Palestine, and specifically, what we are calling the insurgent forces within these territories, we must also compare the particular nature of the most formal forms of organized resistance in these places. The Palestinian Liberation Organization, founded in 1964, is the most prominent insurgency in the case of Israel-Palestine. Splinter groups such as Black September, Al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, or Palestinian Islamic Jihad have all engaged with political violence, both in Israel-Palestine and globally. Hamas is a newer group that has engaged in political violence and functions as a political party engaged in governance, primarily in Gaza. After the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, the PLO’s largest faction, Fatah, emerged as the political party that governs the quasi-state of the West Bank under the moniker of the Palestinian Authority. But the Palestinian insurgents that we are referring to, who engaged in the protests of spring 2021, were not, by in large, driven by of any of these organizations’ violent or political resistance. Rather they were grass roots reactions, on the streets, to particular instances of Israeli occupation.

In Colombia, insurgencies such as M19, FARC, and ELN all have their particular histories. Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) was, like the PLO, also established in 1964. The FARC is Latin America’s oldest and largest guerrilla group of leftist and peasant origins. It should be noted that the FARC emerged as a predominantly rural structure of the Colombian Communist Party (PCC). Beginning in the 1920s, peasants began to organize against harsh working conditions in plantations managed by multinational corporations such as the United fruit Company, struggles to gain land titles, and the struggles of indigenous people to regain control of lands they lost due to a violent program of expropriation led by the state and elite-funded militias. By the 1960s a series of episodes of political political violence, the murder of political leaders, the continued exploitation and killing of peasants and the flourishing of socialism and communism created the conditions for the emergence of different armed insurgent groups, including the FARC.

Similar to Palestine, Colombia remains–even after going through a few peace agreements–a nation at war. Like Palestine, one of the issues that fuels the war in Colombia is over control of space. In Colombia, it is calculated that a little more than 10,000 landowners own about 67% of most fertile land. This accumulation of land by this small elite was achieved by the systematic dispossession and forceful displacement of millions of people that began in the colonial period and has exacerbated during the last 60 years. In recent decades, other actors have increasingly joined the fray, financial institutions and international speculators, crime syndicates, militias, and guerrilla groups fuel a conflict that taints everyday rural life in Colombia with the metallic taste of blood.

Palestine Spring 2021

The fundamental issue at stake for protests in Palestine in spring 2021, goes back to key moments in the occupation of Palestine in 1948 and 1967. While this history is too complex to go into here, the protests that emerged in this latest flare up were tied to this grievance. The resistance to “the occupation” is also an advocacy for sovereignty and human rights, both of which were at stake with the demolition and occupation of homes in Sheik Jarah, which had increased significantly in 2021. Further compounding this are the religious stakes. Sheik Jarah is in East Jerusalem, a holy city in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Because Israel has defined itself as a Jewish state, it wants to solidify control over this symbolic site. The expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem is often carried out by Jewish Israeli civilians in collusion with the Jewish state of Israel that legally, politically, and militarily backs them up.[9] The state of Israel has an interest in Judaizing Jerusalem through a process that pushes Palestinians out. Thus each overt incursion into areas of Jerusalem is perceived by Muslim and Christian Palestinians as an attack on both religious and national sovereignty.

The culmination of a series of violent Israeli crackdowns on Palestinians protesting the land confiscation and housing demolitions in Sheik Jarah, was an Israeli military incursion of the Muslim holy site, Haram al Sharif during Ramadan prayers. This was followed by regular clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian protesters at the Damascus Gate. Eventually Hamas, which controls Gaza, responded to this situation with rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. This was met with an Israeli response that included a brutal bombing campaign until a ceasefire was declared on May 21, 2021.[10]

Colombia in Spring 2021

In Colombia, the most recent wave of protests came after the Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace agreement after three years of negotiations. The 2016 peace accords promised the most ambitious transformation of Colombia’s countryside in the nation’s history, through a flagship project named the Development Program with Territorial Focus.[11] The program aims to improve infrastructure and provide drinkable water, electricity, healthcare, and education to rural areas of the country that had been the most affected by violence. Land reform, reparation for victims, and the re-incorporation of ex-combatants to civil life are some of its most important components. Today, peace remains elusive in Colombia and extreme social inequality is the norm.

In April 2021, a national strike paralyzed Colombia. The anti-government demonstrations were called for by labor unions, black and indigenous groups, peace activists and NGOs representing victims of the armed conflict to protest against a series of proposed tax and fiscal reforms organized under the moniker, Ley de Solidaridad Sostenible (Law of Sustainable Solidarity). The protests quickly became a collective outlet for pent-up grievances against Colombia’s economic policies and political elite: Increased levels of violence against civil rights activists, the failure of the 2016 Peace Accords, increased levels of socio-economic inequality in the second most unequal country in Latin America, and the continued displacement of peasants to clear the way for the extraction of natural resources, agricultural projects, and drug trafficking. In 2013, Colombia occupied the second place (after Syria) in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), which amounted close to 6 million, in the world.

In both the cases of Colombia and Palestine, the protests that emerged in the spring of 2021 were the result of pent up grievances. While the particular histories and contemporary triggers for the most recent flare ups were different, both were situations in which disenfranchised people expressed their frustration at state powers. Also in both situations, the pandemic had aggravated an already precarious economic, social, and political situation. Furthermore, social media allowed for grievances to be shared, protests to be organized, and images of the state violently cracking down on protesters circulated quickly so that the cycles of protest and counterprotest measures grew exponentially in both regions.

Contemporary Palestinian-Colombian Solidarity Efforts

In April 2021, a “Week Against Apartheid” conference was organized by the Latin American contingent of the Boycot Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that brought together activists from Palestine and Colombia as well as panelists from Chile, Argentina, and Peru. The focus was on the COVID pandemic and the ways in which it has revealed various forms of subjugation in these contexts.[12]

Sofia Garzón, a social activist who works at Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), talked about the need for solidarity between not just Colombians but specifically Black Colombians and Palestinians. She described a situation during the pandemic that revealed structural racism and classism in the healthcare system. She also discussed the military structure of Colombian society and the ways in which the pandemic expanded the systems of control through martial law and limitations of movement. Garzón referred to this as the necropolitics of COVID management.

Qassam Muaddi, a Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah, who has also worked in the nonprofit sector described a similar situation in Palestine. First, in terms of healthcare, he described a situation of a double standard. Israel received world renown for quickly acquiring vaccines and inoculating its population, even to the extent of offering one or more boosters to its citizens on top of the initial two shots. But Palestinians did not have the same access to vaccines and had a much lower rate of inoculation. In terms of labor, he talked about the pandemic’s interruption of informal economies, which is the most prevalent form of employment for Palestinians. Prior to the pandemic, many worked in restaurants or hotels in Israel or in West Bank settlements but once the lockdown occurred they no longer had access to these jobs and even after Israelis were able to move back into these sectors, because of the lack of Palestinian vaccination, these workers weren’t able to return to work. Others who worked in construction in these areas were forced into a difficult choice. Israel didn’t want unvaccinated Palestinians moving back and forth across the border so they either could work at a construction site and live there under precarious conditions or they could stay at home with no work.

This conference was a contemporary example of solidarity between Colombians and Palestinians that gave voice to the shared frustrations that would lead to, just a few weeks later, the protests that exploded on the streets of both regions.

Visual Representations of Protest in Colombia and Palestine

Now that we have established the complex historical circumstances of these two regions, let us return to the protests themselves as a site of comparison. How can we see any of the similarities or differences in these two situations through photojournalism?

Let’s compare these two quintessential images, in which a solitary protestor faces off against the military. The left image is in Colombia, the right is in Palestine. What is happening performatively on the street? We notice that in both images the street has been emptied of traffic and it has been divided between the military and the protesters. In both cases a lone protestor throws something towards the soldiers. In both cases, their faces are hidden, to potentially protect their identities but also to cover their mouths from teargas or smoke. In Colombia they are throwing back a teargas canister. The protester seems to be a part of a larger group, as we can see signs of others at the margins. The agitation of the street in both cases is not only through an emptying out of traffic but a filling up with smoke.

If we compare these two images, both examples of a military tactic to use water cannons, we also see a number of similarities. The left is in Palestine, the right in Colombia. Water here is weaponized and yet described by its designers as a less violent form of crowd control, at least compared to bullets or the brute force of a baton. It’s also meant to move populations out of the streets. But yet, the force of these water cannons is powerful and violent. In Israel, they are sometimes filled with a noxious substance that compounds the physical power of the water with a repellent smell. This weapon is referred to as “skunk.”

But there also were other images that seemed strange, out of place, and uncanny to us. For instance, Mohammed Zaanoun from the photographic collective Activestills captured a moment in Beit Lahia, in the Gaza Strip in which three Palestinian men performed fire breathing on top of the rubble of a destroyed apartment complex.

Contrary to the more typical image of the protester as freedom fighter or victim in the face of state power, this rather lighthearted carnivalesque moment does something different. In the image we see these men in black jogging pants, shirtless, astride crumbling concrete, spit a mist of fuel onto fiery torches, creating the illusion that they are breathing fire. This trick is performed on a sunny day with a clear blue sky. The trick suggests that these men are superhuman, that they are like dragons, that they have magic mythical powers. They imagine an alternate reality to the clear evidence of sheer brutality that serves as its backdrop.

This image recalls another earlier Palestian tactic of insurgent political theater in 2010 in which demonstrators dressed as the Na’vi from the 2009 film Avatar.

Avatar’s primary narrative includes a human settler colonial force intent on using violence to extract a precious mineral from the Na’vi planet. The Na’vi, tall with blue skin and pointy ears, are depicted as an indigenous community that has a sacred connection to their land, which is disregarded by the colonizers. This part of the narrative is what the Palestinian protesters, marching against the construction of the separation barrier, also known as an appartheid wall, in Bi’lin in the West Bank, wanted to invoke. Thus as Palestinian protesters have tear gas thrown towards them and as they are dragged, beaten or shot at by Israeli soldiers, the image circulated in the media is of Israeli soldiers enacting this violence on Na’vi.[13] This is a self conscious use of photojournalism as a document of protest as political theater.[14]

When the first major Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation erupted in 1987, rock throwing, burning tires, and teargas became conventional tropes in the global media. These elements have remained the basic structure of protests in Palestine. Politics can be defined, among other things, as a series of performances designed to mobilize a bunch of affective states to incite people to act in certain ways. This is what binds both those in power and minoritarian struggles against hegemony. While tactically, Palestinian protesters during the first intifada might have been expressing immediate anger and frustration at the soldiers that confronted them or even a form of civil disobediance that slowed down the machine of sovereign power, strategically there was also an awareness of the power of representation. A protest held the possibility of being represented in the media. The target of Palestinian activists´ protest when they filled the streets was not the soldiers at the end of the road, nor was it their generals or even Israeli civilian polititians. The target was world opinion and in the mid-1990s, with the Oslo Accords, there was some hope that this strategy was paying off. But this performance became so common that it lasted throughout an unending occupation, as the Oslo accords failed to bring about Palestinian sovereignty and even basic human rights, and when Palestinian protesters used the same tactics the global media was less likely to pay attention. By the time that the Second Intifada began in 2000, activists started to use new tactics, by emphasizing the obvious performativity of the act of protest. By using tactics like the Na’vi stunt, this new form of activism created a strange rupture in our expectations, opening up the possibility of asking questions, first and foremost - what’s going on here?[15] So, when The Guardian reports on this new innovation it could be reporting on the news of the form of protest but it also addresses the political issues at stake and potentially moves the sentiment of the viewer so that we might empathize with the Palestinian Na’vi much like we are asked to empathize with the Na’vi in the fictional film.[16]

One thing to note about the Na'vi narrative is that this is actually more similar to a Colombian narrative of settler colonialism. The imaginary that the Na'vi activate is the imaginary of the extractivist colonial history of the Americas which has plundered indigenous lands for commodities.
Regardless of the fact that the Palestinians are not the victims of an extractivist economy, rather one that is driven by religious, ethnic and nationalist ideologies, they still are at their core victims of the general violent forces of settler colonialism.

In one sense the logic of the Palestinians dressing as the Na´vi is dressing in drag. One could say that they are dressing as the other but in essence they are dressing as themselves - performing themselves more fully. This is the politics of disidentification, as Jose Esteban Munoz brilliantly argued.[17] Munoz built on theories of the performance of subjectivity that centered on intersectional queer and feminist politics but we’re interested in the ways in which the performance of politics can be thought of more broadly and might even be brought to bear on these two situations in spring 2021. So, with that in mind, we now turn to the streets of Colombia.

Vogueing at the Capitol

In the Spring of 2021, a group of queer subjects instrumentalized the history of queer performativity as a liberatory political tactic and put it at the service of a new, more complex political emergency.

This is the scenario:

A buttocks slides up and down a police shield. The policeman that stands behind the bulwark is frozen while the dancer´s muscular booty caresses, slowly and deliberately, the policeman´s instrument of violence and control. On April 28, 2021 Pantera Godoy, in a light pink man-thong, used contemporary forms of black dance, twerking and voguing, to protest economic, social and cultural oppression in Colombia. Later that day, Piisciis, Nova and Axid, vogued at the Plaza Bolívar, the seat of the Colombian government while other protesters danced to the rhythm of drums. These dance performances became iconic moments in the aesthetics of protest in Colombia. They were also packaged for consumption as news by powerful international media outlets such as the New York Times.

Pantera´s booty shake sexualized the shield, sensualized the act of protest, and positioned the black-queer-trans-body in dangerously close proximity to an instrument of state terror. A riot shield is a prosthesis and a double edge sword. It was designed to protect state actors (the police) from projectiles thrown at them by protestors. As such, it embodies the will of the state to protect itself and the status quo. The shield is also a part of an aggressive structure of containment. Kettling, the police tactic of surrounding protestors to corral them in place or to move the crowd to particular places, is an example of how riot gear--including helmets, batons, shields, knee pads, groin protectors--is part of a machinery created to squash the actions and dreams of insurgent subjects fighting against the necropolitics of the state.

The buttocks are a wall as well--a shield for the anus, an aperture of vulnerability. The anus is the site of the entanglement of pleasure and pain and when the buttocks bounce around it they vibrate to illuminate its aura. In making the shield part of the dance performance, Pantera inserts this violent object in a different logic of power and signification. Pantera transforms it into a toy, a sex toy, an object of enjoyment. Given the history of police violence against racialized bodies coded as sexually deviant, Pantera´s bootylicious play with this violent gadget is a daring act of defiance. In Colombia as in many other places, police torture queer bodies through sexual violations that very often include the introduction of batons, guns and other objects into the anus. In this context, Pantera´s performative gesture--rimming the shield, as it were--destabilizes, if only for a moment, the vicious use of the instrument.

Besides twerking on the shield, Pantera vogues through the streets of Bogotá. As a creation of Black and brown queer and trans folks in the United States, vogueing has been a way to play, question, rearrenge notions of gender, class, race and sexuality. It has also been an important strategy for the imagination of radical definitions of family, community and politics in the Black queer community. Vogueing, like twerking and many other African diasporic cultural practices, has been appropriated by the cultural industry. Yet, these embodied performances have not lost their edge as an international language of both joy and resistance as demonstrated by the many performers in different geopolitical locales that center vogueing as a performative platform that allows trans and cuir (queer) people to pridefully embrace joy, pleasure, and care.

Protests often take place on the street, parks, plazas, they are tight spaces—physically and emotionally. Bodies are close together, while excitement, fear of death, and hope are grafted on the space between each other´s skins. In this high-tension space, acts of performance such as Pantera´s breathe political life into disposable lives (black, queer, impoverished, displaced, humiliated). In these moments where insurgent energy is channeled through an incantation of the body, resistance is not about changing the life circumstances of the oppressed, nor is it about the destruction of a system of oppression. These theatrical performances of insurgent political energy crack the unyielding space of oppression and produce a fissure in the overwhelming logic of domination. In Colombia, a place where the Black queer body is perceived as infected, contaminated, expendable, and subject to torture, these moments of political performance-- where the dancer seizes the moment and through their body they enact both a radical vulnerability while reveling in the carnal--curtail, if only for a moment, the flow of bloody power.

Conclusion: Insurgent political theater–the performance of politics

Pantera’s bootylicious intervention was an uncanny carnivalesque moment that, like the Na’vi apparition in the West Bank, invited joyful laughter, a flow of life that can change the energy of the crowd. As activist and photographer Oscar Diaz said about the queer and trans Colombian protesters, "We're undeterred in creating a world where we can radiate joy, share abundance and pleasure, and insist on an economy of care for each other."[18]

The carnivalesque has been a constant in political performance. The Russian literary theorist Mikhael Bakhtin defines the carnivalesque as a surreal space where normally unacceptable behavior in a civic space is invited, when hierarchies are mixed up, where heaven and hell, high and low, sacred and profane exist at the same time and normative orders are challenged. Bakhtin says, “carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone communes in the carnival act…all distance between people is suspended, and a special carnival category goes into effect, free and familiar contact between people.”[19] We might think of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro or Mardis Gras in New Orleans, where costumes, music, dance and adornment mix to provide an unbridled sense of celebration. This particular affective mode in public space has become important for protesters like the puppets and pageantry of the 1999 WTO protests, to counter the perception of anger being the primary affective modality of the insurgent. The carnivalesque is an aesthetic and affective mode that, as Bakhtin points out, invites us to challenge the expectations of normative civic life, including the assumed immovable power of the state and the status quo.

When the status quo in Colombia and Palestine includes systemic disenfranchisement and when the utterance of protest against this hegemonic control is so often met with violent crackdown, it makes sense that the insurgents might adapt.

The moment when Pantera twerked on the policeman’s shield was, like many other improvised moments in political performances, a radical moment of undecidability. This action was unplanned and contingent on the context. It burst open with no premeditation. We have referred to protests as noisy rivers and often, within the unpredictability of its flow, shimmers of different political futures--like Pantera’s improvised explosion--emerge.

One thing to note is that Pantera performed a vulnerability that already exists. As a Black Trans woman confronting the police and risking her safety in the public sphere, she performed an all too common precarity. But can we also imagine this as a call out? A dancer on the floor, voguing, twerking, and performing their best, awaiting the next dancer to take the stage? Ideally, this would also be a call out to the people of privilege to place themselves in radical vulnerability as an intervention in the system of oppression.

A call out like this is simultaneously utopian and absurd. Contemporary political performances embody the absurd, because they seem so radically different from the status quo. New forms of confrontation are demanded because new conditions of being are demanded. Both the demand and the performative form in which the demand is made seem absurd but that is because they have yet to become folded into our contemporary reality. As Munoz has argued, queerness is not yet here, it is a condition of a utupian future, something that sits on the horizon, seen but not yet felt.[20] For us, queerness can be expanded to various forms of Colombian and Palestinian identity that have yet to achieve sovereignty, freedom, and self determination. The call out, as we imagine Pantera’s performance or even the Palestinian fire breathers to be sending, is a call to a future - a different future in which those rights are achieved.

Performativity is an expression of one’s self but also one’s self in the public sphere. The performance of subjectivity in the public sphere is an important mechanism for the citizen subject to negotiate their marginalization in relation to state structures that have historically acted against the very possibility of their existence.The objective of political theater is to activate a subversive subject - to appeal for the potential for subversive ideological positions and bodies to become a part of the public sphere and thus of a civic structure.[21]

Postscript: Back to Business as Usual

The Na’vi protesters in the West Bank and the twerking queer folk in the streets of Bogotá represent a rupture in the fabric of normative activism. But the shimmer of affect that they provide is a tributary to the flow of the raging river of history. The fact is that after these mesmerizing carnivalesque performances of protest the status quo remained intact.

In Israel, a brutal occupation has continued, the wall that protesters sought to remove was built anyway. In the spring of 2021, hundreds of precision-guided bombs and missiles rained on Gaza. The result: at least 248 people dead, including 66 children, with more than 1,900 people wounded from Israeli air and artillery attacks. Following the attack on Gaza,, there was a ceasefire but in August, 2021 Israel bombed Gaza in retaliation for incendiary balloons launched over the border. In September, Israel shot five Palestinians in the West Bank while the US Congress voted overwhelmingly to fund an Iron Dome missile shield with $1 billion in addition to the $3.8 billion that the US annually gives Israel in military aid. Recently, in the spring of 2022, Al Aqsa once again became a site of violence.

In Colombia, the protests seem to have had deep repercussions in the political field as evidenced by the selection of Francia Marquez, a Black woman and an environmental activist, as the vice presidential running mate of Gustavo Petro, the leading contender for the presidency. Yet, this unprecedented event must be analyzed against the state of war that characterizes Colombia´s everyday reality. In 2020, Indepaz reported the murder of 310 social, indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant leaders, members of the LGBTI+ community and 64 signatories of the Peace Accord. So far this year, at least 135 activists have been killed. Meanwhile, Colombia continues to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. 7.2 million people, most of which are peasants of indigenous and african descent, are pushed off their land at gunpoint so that we may continue to live on the spoils of conquest and colonialism--gold, silver, coal, oil, water, beef, CBD oil, and let's not forget the exotic bouquet of flowers available at Whole Foods for $15.99.

We return to this history of violence because we are suspicious of gestures towards transcendence or redemption in political narratives. One reason for this skepticism is that optimistic sunny dispositions often characterize the language of those in power touting peace accords and new futures that rarely bear fruit. The harsh realities that the political insurgencies in these two regions revealed–once again–persist until today and will be the reality in the foreseeable future.

But we raise these parallels of protest tactics to propose a speculative future – the further development of alliances and solidarities – that embraces the performative imaginary as a new way of illuminating injustices and advocating for substantial social and political change.

[1] In this essay we will be using a number of terms to refer to “subjects in revolt” - terms such as protesters, insurgents, guerillas, and terrorists have been used to refer to these subjects. The choice of words refers to nuances of both the subjects themselves and the ideology of those that are describing them. To some, any protester against the governement is a terrorist, to others, any protestor is a freedom fighter, regardless of their ties to organized forms of political resistance. For the purposes of this essay we are most interested in the protesters on the street and have chosen not to adjudicate their relationships to particular political groups, violent or otherwise.
[2] As Ilan Pappe notes, the housing demolition has been a part of an Israeli strategy to put pressure on Palestinians to leave their homes since the inception of the state of Israel in 1948. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006)
[3] This is explored in Yotam Feldman’s 2013 film, The Lab.
[4] Ronaldo Munck and Pablo Pozzi, “Israel, Palestine, and Latin America: Conflictual Relationships,” Latin American Perspectives, Issue 226, Vol. 46. No. 3, May 2019, 4-12. See also, Les W. Field, “The Colombia-Israeli Nexus: Toward Historical and Analytic Contexts.” Latin American Research Review, vol. 52, no. 4, 2017, 639–53,
[5] Mauricio Aranguren Molina, Mi confesión: Carlos Castaño revela sus secretos, 2001, p.108. Bogotá: Editorial Oveja Negra.
[6] Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of a Modern National Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)
[7] Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11–40, p. 40.
[8] Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” p. 28-30. For an in-depth discussion on the difference between modern colonial regimes and contemporary forms of colonialism, see Mbembe, On the Postcolony.
[9] This practice of the relationship between civilians in the state in carrying out the daily practices of occupation are outlined in Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman, A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture (Verso, 2003)
[10] Patrick Kingsley, “After Years of Quiet, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Exploded. Why Now?” The New York Times, May 15, 2021. Oliver Holmes and Peter Beaumont, “Israeli Police Storm al-Aqsa ahead of Jerusalem Day,” The Guardian, May 10, 2021. “Israel Gaza Ceasefire Holds Despite Jerusalem Clash.” BBC News, May 21, 2021.
[11] Description of PDET:
[13] “Avatar Protest at West Bank Barrier,” The Guardian, February 12, 2010.
[14] See also the 2011 film Five Broken Cameras, which tells the story of Emad Burnatt, a Palestinian activist who documented the weekly protests in Bi’lin.
[15] Creative forms of protest have a long history throughout the world, beyond this particular example. Groups such as ACT UP used performative die-ins, the coalition that used carnivalesque practices such as puppets during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, There is also the standing man tactic during the 2013 Taksim Square protests in Istanbul and the numerous creative representations of “the disappeared” in Latin America. We make no claims that the creativity found in these two regions is exceptional but they allow us to examine two case studies together.
[16] To be clear, performativity does not negate the earnestness of the protester’s demand. There have been numerous examples of Israel claiming that certain protests were mere theater or fake news to stir up the street. We are not making this claim but rather, are working under the assumption that all protest is performative.
[17] Jose Esteban Munoz, Disidentification: Queers of Color and the Politics of Performance, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
[18] Sandra Song, “The Trans and Queer Organization Protesting Colombia’s Government,” Paper, May 20, 2021.
[19] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) p 122-23.
[20] Jose Esteban Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009)
[21] Both Judith Butler and Michael Warner make a similar argument about the politics of public space and public assembly. See Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) and Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Cambridge: Zone Books, 2002).
[22] When Judith Butler argued that gender was always already performed, it troubled “naturalized” assumptions about gender and allowed for the possibility of gender to be troubled. Just as the politics of gender can be troubled through performativity, so too can other forms of politics such as any naturalized claims towards sovereignty. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Routledge, 1990)

March Journal August, 2022