Assistant Professor of Sociology
Colgate University, New York
I recently stumbled upon Christina Jackson’s wonderful blog post here. Since my own work also examines the body in protest, I wanted to add my research to this stimulating conversation.
One of the many questions animating my ethnographic research with three movement communities is this:
How does the embodiment of activism operate for solidarity activists, those who are not directly targeted by the injustices they contest?
The groups I look at are:
1) School of the Americas Watch, which endeavors to close the military training facility at Ft. Benning, Georgia;
2) the Migrant Trail Walk, part of the US/Mexico border justice movement;
3) Witness Against Torture, a grassroots effort to close the Guantánamo Prison.
Because solidarity activists inhabit a fairly specific position in the movements they join, the embodiment of their protest serves particular ends. These are not always distinct from the embodied resistance we see throughout history. However, I find that high risk, high stakes activism offers solidarity activists unique tools for navigating the particulars of their social position. In this post, I discuss three such functions of embodied resistance: 1. Divesting from privilege; 2. Felt closeness to the state’s targets; 3. Gaining credibility with various audiences.
But first, a quick primer on solidarity activism…
Social movements nearly always count among their ranks those who are not directly impacted by the injustice being contested: whites in the US Civil Rights movement, men in feminist movements, US citizens in the struggles of Central Americans, to name but a few. Solidarity activists -- a term that I first saw used by Juanita Sundberg (2007) -- have gone by many terms in the scholarship. We often call them “conscience constituents” (McCarthy and Zald 1977) and “allies” (Myers 2008). (My choice of solidarity activist is elaborated elsewhere.) These kinds of activists are often assumed to be more “fickle,” likely to dabble in different movements, and less committed over the long term. This is most certainly not the case with the lion’s share of the activists I study, many of who have been engaged in high-risk tactics for decades. Indeed, I find that these activists’ high-risk, embodied activism helps to cultivate long term commitment (Russo 2014).
There is of course much more to say about solidarity activists, what the research about them suggests, and even the limitations of such a designation. I’m going to give those topics short shrift, in order to jump to the crux of my contribution here. What does high-risk embodied activism offer solidarity activists? At least three things…
1. Divesting from privilege
Because solidarity activists are not directly violated by the injustice they contest, they are generally thought to enjoy a set of privileges and protections that movement beneficiaries do not. High-risk, embodied tactics give the folks I study a way to divest from privilege and the seductions of the dominant order.
As one example, in 2005, 25 activists with Witness Against Torture violated travel embargos to make their way to Cuba, walk the length of the island by foot, and demand access to the prison, while camping out and fasting for a week.
During this time, WAT participant Frida Berrigan reflected on the meaning of her hunger.
“As I have struggled to bend my cravings for food into cravings for justice, i am in dialogue with my body. Being dependent on the body is such an un-American predicament. Americans write letters to congress and the editor, we write checks, we hire lobbyists and pr firms, we employ people and utilize services. We do everything we can to keep from using our bodies to make a difference. For me the whole journey has been about exploring what it means to have and use a body…in some part- purging ourselves of privilege.”
This embodied activism is both a practical and ethical engagement with dynamics of privilege. It is practical because these activists are not members of the political elite. They are not Washington insiders, and they do not have enough money to impact the system. It is ethical because such money and power are not the tools for which they strive. Instead, these groups engage in embodied tactics that both require and undercut the privileges they do have.
Embodied tactics also offer solidarity activists a…
2. Felt closeness to the state’s targets
The social position of solidarity activists is defined in part by not having directly experienced the oppression they contest. Embodied resistance generates a felt sense of connection to the direct targets of state violence. This is an embodied and emotional way of coming to know injustice.
The decision to travel to Cuba and to fast was, of course, not random. In part, these activists were seeking to enact a bodily tactic as an act of solidarity publicity with the fact of the Guantánamo prisoners’ first widely publicized hunger strike. This is also what Migrant Trail walk participants do when they travel for days in the desert to draw attention to border enforcement policies that have cost thousands of migrant crossers their lives.
Alex, an immigration attorney, came to the Migrant Trail with a wealth of legal knowledge and years of conversations with migrants who had themselves crossed the US-Mexico border. Yet Alex still understood that the Migrant Trail afforded him new levels of understanding.
“What I’ve learned was a lesson from experience, a lesson of getting sick and this isn’t as bad as it gets. I only got like very minor cases of heat stroke, dehydration… it’s a lesson that I could only learn by feeling it.”
Finally, there are politically important ramifications of embodied, high-risk tactics in that they help these activists…
3. Gaining credibility with various audiences
Solidarity activists are sometimes viewed as less trust worthy representatives of a cause. Myers (2008) terms this particular challenge that these kinds of activists face “the credibility hurdle.” By putting themselves bodily into spaces and experiences of state violence that the dominant culture keeps hidden, the solidarity activists I study emerge with compelling stories that they can share broadly. They find that people listen, and are more likely to trust them.
Migrant Trail participant Darlene explained that in her very conservative town,
“I have come to believe that my ability to relate to conservative white people, mostly religious, is where I might be able to have the most impact in terms of changing hearts and arguing a pro- immigrant position.”
Darlene’s ‘conservative’ Christian community valued the fact that Darlene would engage in the physical demands of a pilgrimage rather than partake in politically expedient and shallow speech acts.
Alexa of SOA Watch reported something similar. The SOA Watch campaign has seen thousands of protesters commit civil disobedience, some by physically climbing over (or digging under) fences that separate the military base at Ft. Benning from neighbors. Alexa also believed that her experiences with high-risk activism afforded her a unique platform for discussing the violence of the US security state. Alexa noted how the large-scale civil disobedience of SOA Watch participants dramatized the issue in compelling ways. Having been arrested twice at Ft. Benning and serving six months in prison for her second trespass, Alexa now carried the SOA story through her various social networks.
“I continue to work different jobs and meet new people, and talking about this kind of action has always been like, ‘wow, tell me about that. What was prison like?’ It’s a way to introduce the subject of the SOA and imperialism.”
Through the embodiment of their protest, these activists reach out to the targets of state violence in solidarity, confront the state itself in dissent, and appeal to the public with a political alternative and ethical imperative. By embodying their political intentions, they come to see, feel and understand state violence in ways that they could not otherwise. They share these felt experiences broadly, making the state’s targets, which the dominant culture disavows, harder to ignore and hold at a moral distance.
The culmination of this research can be found in my forthcoming book Solidarity in Practice: Moral Protest and the US Security State.
Chandra Russo is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colgate University, New York, where she teaches courses in social movements, activism and anti-racism. Before earning her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, she spent several years working on immigrant justice issues in New York State, Central Mexico and Colorado. Her research and writing on these matters has been published in numerous venues, including Mobilization, Race & Class, Interface, and the Denver Post.
Book description: Cross-border solidarity has captured the interest and imagination of scholars, activists and a range of political actors in such contested areas as the US-Mexico border and Guantanamo Bay. Chandra Russo examines how justice-seeking solidarity drives activist communities contesting US torture, militarism and immigration policies. Through compelling and fresh ethnographic accounts, Russo follows these activists as they engage in unusual and high risk forms of activism (fasting, pilgrimage, civil disobedience). She explores their ideas of solidarity and witnessing, which are central to how the activists explain their activities. This book adds to our understanding of solidarity activism under new global arrangements, and illuminates the features of movement activity that deepen activists' commitment by helping their lives feel more humane, just and meaningful. Based on participant observation, interviews, surveys and hundreds of courtroom statements, Russo develops a new theorization of solidarity that will take a central place in social movement studies.
McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N. Zald, 1977. “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory. The American Journal of Sociology. 82 (6): 1212-1241.
Myers, Daniel J. 2008. “Ally Identity: The Politically Gay.” In Identity Work in Social Movements, edited by Jo Reger, Daniel J. Myers, and Rachel L. Einwohner, 167- 188. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Russo, Chandra. 2014. “Allies Forging Collective Identity: Embodiment and Emotions on the Migrant Trail.” Mobilization: An International Journal. 19(1): 67-82
Sundberg, Juanita. 2007. “Reconfiguring North–south Solidarity: Critical Reflections on Experiences of Transnational Resistance.” Antipode 39 (1): 144–66.