Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Pageantry in Protests

Vedanta Resources Wednesday faced mounting pressure about its human rights and environmental record in India as protesters, including celebrities such as Bianca Jagger, swamped its annual general meeting.

Protesters at Vedanta’s annual general meeting today.
Some campaigners came dressed as characters from the film Avatar, as they liken Vedanta to the evil multinational in the movie.

Wall Street Journal
July 28, 2010

Pageantry such as the above undeniably adds visibility to a demonstration, and may increase the likelihood that a news outlet will take and circulate photos and video. However, at a certain point, the spectacle overtakes the message. The event is no longer about a serious and dire political or environmental issue, but about people who are dressed up like characters from Avatar.

If you then think back to the race controversy surrounding Avatar, this gets a little more problematic. At the time of its release, Cameron's movie was criticized for being yet another movie about white people saving native people (see Huffington Post, Avatar Critics See Racist Theme).

If one applies the same criticism to this protest event, it takes on a bizarre story-within-a-story quality: in attempt to save actual native people, white people have dressed up as fictional native people, who in the movie, are saved by fictional white people. If you then flatten the fictional and actual titles out of this formula, then you're left with white people dressing up as native people who (thank goodness) get saved by white people.

I admit that there is some reduction at work here. Not all protesters are white people, and as I said from the start, undeniably, this stuff gets people's attention. I am now aware of the mining issue in Orissa, India, and in that sense the protest is undeniably successful. I may not have heard about it otherwise. Yet at the same time, I walk away thinking more about the people behind the protest, and the intentions behind their costuming.

Also, in the midst of looking some of this up, I ran into a story from February in which Palestinians protested the Israeli West Bank barrier (full story and video at Blue body paint and all, it's a pretty arresting image.