POLITICS

DC’s many prankster activists turn anger into street theater

Feb 18, 2019, 5:52 AM
Demonstrators protest against the president of the Philippines and the bloodshed on his war on drug...
Demonstrators protest against the president of the Philippines and the bloodshed on his war on drugs by tying hundreds of strips of red cloth to the trees and signs outside of the Philippines Embassy in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. In the nation’s capital, it can be hard for protesters to stand out. Fifty people _ or even 500 _ holding signs and shouting hardly merits a second glance in this city of protests. That’s why Washington activists have to get creative. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the nation’s capital, it can be hard for protesters to stand out. Fifty people — or even 500 — holding signs and shouting hardly merits a second glance in this city of protests.

That’s why Washington activists have to get creative. There’s an ethos of performative prankster-style protest wired into the District of Columbia’s history, dating back decades.

This confrontational street-theater school is flourishing with the Trump administration as its nemesis. Each month brings new acts of political theater — some confrontational, some deliberately absurdist.

“It can take a serious issue into more of a playful place,” said Robin Bell, who regularly projects disparaging messages onto the outside of the Trump International Hotel. “Oftentimes we visualize the absurdity of the situation.”

In January, a group of activists associated with political pranksters The Yes Men passed out dozens of fake Washington Posts, with detailed articles depicting President Donald Trump resigning and fleeing the White House. For about a month last fall, a Robert Mueller investigation-themed ice cream truck roamed Washington, passing out free scoops with names like IndictMint Chip and Rocky Rod Rosenstein.

While some protests are designed to get attention, others hide in plain sight like Easter eggs for the observant. Within sight of the White House, a realistic-looking street sign declares the street Khashoggi Way, after Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident Saudi journalist killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. About 10 of these signs have been scattered around Washington.

Activist Claude Taylor said he planted his first sign in front of the Saudi Embassy, where it lasted 24 hours before being removed. But he’s pleased the sign outside the White House has lasted so long — more than a month — since his protest is against both Khashoggi’s murder and what he considers Trump’s soft response. Taylor also drives around town carrying an inflatable effigy depicting the president as a giant rat .

“It’s got to be art, it’s got to be creative. That’s what gets people hooked,” said Adam Eidinger, perhaps Washington’s most high-profile political provocateur.

Eidinger is one of the District’s public faces for marijuana legalization and is known for disruptive protests. In 2017, his group passed out 1,000 joints on Capitol Hill, but only to ID-carrying congressional staffers. He says he still owns a small jail cell on wheels for use in political stunts.

Eidinger lists the advantages to this sort of theatrical approach. It’s more enjoyable and inspiring for the participants, more likely to garner media attention and go viral. Equally important, it’s more likely to annoy opponents.

“One of the goals is to have a psychological impact, to get into their heads,” he said.

He says he’s been arrested 23 times, although he emphasizes that usually isn’t the point.

“Just getting arrested is not creative. You should be willing to get arrested doing something else transgressive,” he said.

The Trump administration is not the only target for these sorts of protests. On Thursday, two female activists disrobed inside the National Gallery of Art to protest what they say is a lack of diversity in the artists being featured. One led security on a brief chase before being subdued. The National Gallery of Art did not respond to a request for comment.

A day earlier, activists targeted the Philippine Embassy with a protest that was deliberately obscure. Around 7 a.m., several people strung swaths of red jute fabric on every tree, sign and lamp post surrounding the embassy, including the nearby statue of Daniel Webster. Last month, this group wrapped an enormous stretch of jute around the entire embassy fence, blocking both driveways.

It’s an elaborate protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, in which human rights groups estimate more than 10,000 people have been killed by police and militias.

But there were no signs indicating that. In fact, given the date, most passers-by probably assumed it was related to Valentine’s Day.

“There’s a deliberate mystery to what we’re doing” said an organizer, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid prosecution. “Our audience is the embassy. Hopefully the guy at the embassy is going to be like ‘I don’t know what this is about, but I better tell my boss.'”

An embassy spokesman said local authorities had been contacted, but that all forms of “peaceful freedom of expression are all welcome.”

The godmother of this local protest ethos is Nadine Bloch, a resident of the historically liberal hotspot of Takoma Park, Maryland, located just over the Washington line. Bloch’s activism goes back to captaining a ship for Greenpeace in the 1990s seeking to disrupt French nuclear tests. Both Eidinger and Bell credit her with helping form their own sensibilities as part of the Washington Action Group.

“Nadine gathered all these people in the late ’90s and now they’re out there on their own doing it,” Eidinger said.

Bloch speaks of the “artist-activist” and trains activists in a school of creative revolution known as “beautiful trouble.” She said simple public weirdness is not enough and counsels activists to think through their goals, their message and their audience.

“A lot of people are in love with their clever tactics,” Bloch said. “But if you don’t know what your goal is, then good luck if your message actually delivers.”

In the institutional memory of Washington’s activists, December 1987 stands as an iconic moment. That’s when posters suddenly appeared across town with a brutal assessment of President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Edwin Meese: “Experts Agree: Meese is a Pig.”

Their origin was a local mystery at first, eventually revealed to be the work of Jeff Nelson, drummer for the Washington-based political hardcore band Minor Threat.
Nelson said his posters weren’t particularly clever or constructive but more like a vulgar scream of frustration.

“I was just looking for some sort of megaphone to shout back,” said Nelson, now 56 and living in Toledo, Ohio. “Basically I did what I knew how to do, which was silkscreen posters.”

But Nelson’s legacy lingers.

When Bell, the projectionist, started targeting the Trump hotel after the 2016 election, he paid homage to his forebears.

His first projection said: “Experts Agree: Trump is a Pig.”

Today’s Top Stories

Politics

Jeff Gray is pictured. Photo credit: Jeff Gray Campaign Facebook page....
Lindsay Aerts and Samantha Herrera

Jeff Gray to bring back death penalty after becoming presumptive next Utah County Attorney

In the race for Utah County Attorney, prosecutor Jeff Gray beat incumbent David Leavitt and is expected to take office in January.
5 days ago
A voter drops a ballot into a box at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Mo...
Becky Bruce

The Utah primary election is expected to be ‘pretty normal’

Tuesday's primary election in Utah is expected to be about average for a midterm election.
7 days ago
A voter fills in the ballot on the voting machine during the Election Day voting at Vivint Smart Ho...
Lindsay Aerts

State elections leaders dismiss state lawmakers claims of vote switching

WASATCH COUNTY, Utah — The State Elections Office says all of the state’s voting machines are working correctly ahead of Primary Election Day Tuesday. This comes after Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, made claims on social media, that some of the machines were changing people’s votes. Screenshot of Lyman’s social media post. Lyman posted on Facebook […]
7 days ago
A crowd gathers in front of the Utah State Capitol on Friday, June 24, 2022, to protest the U.S. Su...
Waverly Golden

Planned Parenthood of Utah files lawsuit against the state

Utah's Trigger Law saw its first challenge on Saturday as Planned Parenthood of Utah filed a lawsuit to block the law that went into effect Friday evening.
8 days ago
marriage Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen firearm codify...
Mark Jones

With Roe v. Wade now overturned, could same-sex marriage be next?

Many people are wondering what precedents the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on next, possibly same-sex marriage. Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen says the court could do so it wishes.
10 days ago
A crowd gathers in front of the Utah State Capitol on Friday, June 24, 2022, to protest the U.S. Su...
Mark Jones

S.B. 174 now in effect in Utah with Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade

With the overturn of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Utah trigger law, known as S.B. 174 is now in effect in the state.
10 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Tax Harassment...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
Prescription opioids can be disposed of during National Prescription Take Back Day...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?
national heart month...
Intermountain Healthcare

National Heart Month: 5 Lifestyle Changes to Make Today to Keep You Heart Healthy

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease
Joseph Smith Memorial Building...
Temple Square

The Joseph Smith Memorial Building is an icon of Salt Lake City | Why hosting an event at this beautiful location will make you a hero this year

Here's why hosting an event at the iconic Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City will make you a hero this year.
DC’s many prankster activists turn anger into street theater