Over the past month, a series of protests have broken out across university campuses in South Africa over the continuing realities of racial inequality and white privilege in the post-apartheid world. Originating at the University of Cape Town, where students started vandalizing a statue of colonialist extraordinaire (and the man who granted the campus its land in 1918) Cecil Rhodes as an offensive symbol of oppression, the protests have expanded to the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Howard College and Rhodes University and now include tactics like building occupations. But while some worry that this movement could signal the outbreak of acrimonious racial confrontations in the nation, most news outlets have been fixated on one tactic used by the protestors: throwing human feces at the statue of Rhodes during their first major agitation in March.
"The issue of poo is very metaphoric for us," Al-Jazeera recently quoted student protest leader Chumani Maxwele as saying. "We're using metaphor for us to explain our collective black pain. We show our collective disgust."
Given the way these protests are being reported even a month after they began (it's rare to find a headline that doesn't highlight the shit slinging, and harder still to find an article that doesn't reference it anywhere), you'd think poop-based protests were an exceptionally rare occurrence. Yet there were at least two other major examples of diarrheic dissidence in March 2015 alone:
In America, Marine General John Kelly reportedly told a Senate committee that detainees at Guantanamo Bay had started to use mixtures of bodily fluids, including slurries of ass ham, to barrage guards. Meanwhile in the Latehar district of India's Jharkhand state, Adivasi (tribal native) protestors organized a mass public shit-in , squatting over copies of the central government's new land bill, which they feel impinges on the already marginalized community.
Both of these cases seem to accord with philosophic musings on anal activism ( because people have mused on this), which describe using turds as tools of protest as an extreme act of desperation. An unparalleled act of defilement, almost universally taboo, it's seen as an extreme measure. That's how Abhay Xaxa , leader of the Jharkhand Adivasi dump demonstration, sees it too—he says they settled on their new tact after a rally of 30,000 Adivasis in the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh failed to gain any attention, leaving them at wits end for new methods.
"Poop protest is not a new form of agitation," India Resists quoted Xaxa as saying. "In fact throughout history, whenever oppressed masses have dropped their shit as arsenal, rulers have been shaken because it often marks the beginning of a social uprising."
Watch what happens to your poop after you flush it in our documentary 'You Don't Know Shit.'
Yet this lofty analysis may give us humans a little too much credit. People seem to resort to using water logs as a weapon in personal disputes regularly and almost thoughtlessly.
In the New York area alone Gothamist has recorded at least four trivial disputes within the last decade that rapidly escalated into fecal fracases: In 2006, a Manhattan resident chased down a 13-year-old who'd failed to scoop her Chihuahua's colon cannonball and smeared it in her hair and all over her catholic schoolgirl uniform to teach her a lesson. In 2010 , a Staten Island man got a misdemeanor charge for criminal mischief and graffiti (apparently that's how we legally classify smearing poop on stuff) for chucking some crap at his neighbor's door after a neighborly feud. (A similar thing played out between a Bowery sculptor and the art gallery next door the following year.) And in 2013 , a Hoboken woman, angry over a parking ticket, scooped some shitlets off the street and threw them into the face of the official who'd just written the citation.
This apparent human readiness to resort to rectal warfare may explain the numerous instances of both logical, justified and illogical, poo-related protests we've seen over the last few years alone:
In 2011, at least one protestor seemed to think it was a good idea to squat on a cop car at the Occupy Wall Street protests (despite all the flak and heat protestors were taking for poor sanitation at their campsites and the plethora of other avenues of effective dissent open to them.)
In 2012, members of the Continuity Irish Republic Army imprisoned in the high-security Maghaberry facility outside Belfast launched a "dirty protest" against new full-body search protocols, smearing their cells with stink streaks in a meaningful callback to the strategies of IRA prisoners held in abysmal conditions in North Ireland's Maze prison in the early 1980s.
In 2013, protestors in Cape Town, South Africa perhaps planted ideas in the heads of the current student protestors by launching a mass (bowel) movement, pinching and pitching loafs onto the provincial legislature building, the international airport, the bus transporting the regional premier, and throughout a series of low-income settlements to protest poor sanitary conditions and economic disparities. The same year, a similar tactic spread to Zimbabwe, where a man spared a free speech charge by using a campaign poster from dictator-President Robert Mugabe's political party to wipe his wide load. Even Texans may have joined in, as highly contested reports emerged that summer that 18 jars of waste were confiscated from pro-choice protestors demonstrating outside of the state senate as it debated stringent new abortion restrictions.
But 2014 takes the cake as a real doozy of a duce-demonstration year. That January, a French horse breeder, accused of using his animals' crab apples in previous protests, drove an entire truck of horse shit up to the National Assembly in Paris and dumped it there in a big F-U to a new tax on equestrian activities. In March, to the northwest in Breast, France, a man (who'd previously pissed all over post office computers) stuffed his own stuffing into the cash slots of 17 ATMs, apparently to protest The System. A few months later, in August, an Egyptian dissident (who'd fled the country in 2011 after some nude protest photos landed her in trouble with the authorities only to wind up in Sweden involved with the radical feminist group Femen) made headlines for menstruating on an Islamic State flag while another woman in a black hijab flipped off the camera and let loose her intestines over the ISIS symbol. Two months later , in a more localized instance of outrage, a little person in the UK city of Hull decided to vent his frustrations against the lack of facilities for him in public housing by dropping trou in a municipal building's reception room. And finally in November , Cards Against Humanity decided to take a stand on Black Friday's rampant consumerism by selling literal bullshit in a box, explicitly labeled as such. They sold out of their 30,000-box stock within half a day.
(Honorable 2014 mention goes to a group of Hong Kongers who, that August, decided to share their frustrations with mainland Chinese tourists allowing their children to relieve themselves in public by dressing up, parading down to the Harbor City tourist trap, and taking fake dumps before massive audiences of locals and visitors alike, drawing tons of media attention.)
Yet going back farther than this, it gets a bit difficult to find instances of poop protesting. Two cases emerged in 2008, but for the most part such demonstrations only crop up occasionally—the IRA prison protests being among the most notorious. This may mean that we've just not been catching a wide world of low-level lower-intestinal activism in the mass media until fairly recently. Or it may mean that we're actually seeing an explosion in excremental action in the modern day. Either way, the Cape Town protests and their initial sewage salvo are certainly not unprecedented events, especially in recent history. And it seems fairly likely that we'll see a bit more merde in headlines on social movements in the coming months and years.
Follow Mark on Twitter.