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How Protesters Make Noise by Saying Nothing

Silent protest can be a powerful strategy as long as it's disruptive and threatening. Two very different protests proved that this week.

by Natasha Lennard
May 9 2014, 11:30pm

Photo by Darío Ribelo

Silence and its place in political action has played a significant role this month, first in Turkey — and then in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In a startling symbolic representation of their ongoing hunger strike, several Afghan refugees protesting their ill-treatment in Turkey have sewed their lips together. Their pierced, barbed mouths serve a visually arresting reminder of the uncertain and miserable limbo to which Turkish authorities have reduced Afghan refugees.

More than 6,000 miles away in Albuquerque, New Mexico, silence as political act was used differently but effectively last night. On the heels of months of protests against police brutality — the city has had 25 deadly police shootings since 2010, several of which were found to be unjustified by the US Justice Department — activists approached a microphone at a City Council meeting to say… nothing at all. At least seven people used their allotted speaking time to remain quiet, some even turning their backs to council members. The activists were notably ejected and cited for criminal trespass. Council President Ken Sanchez deemed the behavior disruptive, while supporters exclaimed, "Silence is speech."

In these two very different political contexts, a similar question emerges: How can silence function as a loud act of political dissent? In both cases, different as they are, visible, performative silence serves to highlight that both groups have already been silenced by the reigning political order. Their silent protests essentially force a recognition of the status quo regarding who gets to speak. Refugees, victims of police harassment and brutality, disenfranchised and minority communities, and others are consistently without a platform from which to (truly) be heard. A silent protest serves to bring this fact into unavoidable light.

Silence is a forceful political strategy only if it disrupts. The Silent Parade of 1917, in which up to 10,000 African-Americans marched through the streets of New York to protest anti-black violence, was one of the first major public demonstrations of black people demonstrating en masse for civil rights in the city. In December 2012, having confined themselves to their hard-won territories for nearly a decade, many thousands of Mexican Zapatistas, faces masked, marched in perfect formation and silence to occupy the central city squares of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Comitan, and Altamirano. It was a haunting reminder that Zapatista forces could still mobilize at any time, just as they had in 1994.

The idea of a boundless horde is invoked to appear politically threatening — "We are legion," as Anonymous says.

But if silence is to be an effective political tactic, it must be used wisely. I remember a number of planned "silent marches" during the 2011 heyday of Occupy Wall Street in New York. Amid the sonorous buzz and boom of downtown Manhattan, a stream of a few hundred straggling, silent protestors insisting on a silent procession produced no disruptive effect at all. In recognition of this, a fair few of us demonstrators began to mockingly bellow, "Silent march! Silent march!"

University of Minnesota Communications Professor Barry Brummett has noted that a condition of silence as political strategy is that the act of silence "violates expectations" — as was indeed the case in Turkey and Albuquerque. The boldest acts of silence I have personally witnessed have been the refusal of a number of anarchists in the past year to cooperate and give evidence against allies when called before federal grand juries. Granted personal immunity by federal prosecutors, these grand jury resistors had two options: snitch or risk imprisonment (without charge or conviction) for acting in contempt; my friend Jerry Koch served eight months in a Manhattan federal corrections facility for his concerted act of radical silence. In the words of writer Quinn Norton, the coercive incarceration of grand jury resistors enacts "the mechanics of snitching." Norton wrote a heartbreaking personal essay about her own remorse for cooperating with a grand jury investigating technologist Aaron Swartz, who later committed suicide when faced with grave, trumped-up federal cybercrime charges.

Political silence finds an interesting corollary in what certain theories advocate as a strategy of obfuscation, anonymity, and what the French radical journal Tiqqun has called "fog." Since we live as constantly tracked, surveyed, and enumerated subjects, there is a certain political advantage to remaining hidden; the idea of a boundless horde is invoked to appear politically threatening — "We are legion," as Anonymous says. It seems to me that in the face of certain horrors — police brutality and killings, the violent treatment of disenfranchised communities — political debate is not adequate. I am reminded of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's final proposition in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." When language fails, forceful silence and fog open up as radical possibilities.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

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