I Cried, Power! (On Protest and Masterful Citizenship)

Ladan Osman

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It’s possible our ideals are inborn, that we enact and reinscribe them with deeper meaning. The ideal propels us, asks us to evolve. Scriptures, the Constitution, law and poetry exist as an image of a chair, which through an accident of exquisite light simultaneously casts its shadow and reflection on the wall. The image transcends conceptual limitation through rare action in form. This is a root for belief in the power of protest. We are discovering our ideals, and in our imperfection create the perfect environment for revolution: image transformed toward ideal, and beyond. From present to primordial.

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Protest is a disruption not of order but of the order of images, their attendant narratives. It’s the execution of the civically miraculous. Through deep love (which can look many ways) and knowledge, the masterful citizen cherishes the state, and is able to form coherent, precise critique of it.

During the Civil Rights Movement, visibility disrupted order. Black bodies taking up space in symbolic settings while sensitively and at times uniformly styled, highlighting the dishevelment of violence: their blood on white shirts and delicate white socks. This accumulation of stark and emotionally charged images was, of course, a strategy. There was also the national broadcast of a spiritual act: lament and ministry on the front steps of state infrastructures, headquarters of mischief turned into pulpits. Martin Luther King Jr. was a masterful citizen, orator, and organizer, as well as an exemplary performance artist whose methods are ceaselessly recreated even by those who can never recognize the remarkable stakes his body was forced to house.

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Our current protest aesthetics seem influenced primarily by Vietnam War actions. When we consider that time’s desired social rigidity, and the expectation for white youth to finesse imperial positioning gained with WWII, we can start to understand why a generation prospected for its economic potential and uniformity staged public tenderness and aesthetic looseness. If we think about daily trauma in their homes, their elders impacted by the Great Depression, wars in a dizzyingly expansive theater—such wide devastation, awkward breakfasts following nightmares and nightmares, less social space to safely express pain in the glare of victory, and reconfigurations of national character in response to globalization and new industry—their radical act was movement toward release.

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Some point to protests in the Middle East and try to compare zeitgeist, but the body in space is regulated by means specific to its contexts. There are always some intersections but more intricacies.

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In this moment, protests in which citizens object not to an event or to a law but to apparent disregard for their collective power can often lack recognizable meaning. Public lament and symbolic posturing are now familiar in our visual and emotional registries. This doesn’t have to remove value. The body has a different relevance in a post-fiber-optic era. We perform flash mobs to propose marriage, for example. We clash online. When gathered in the public arena, these acts may carry less weight because the emphasis is on presence, not acts, rendering the body a signifier. It can appear as if citizens are in formation, awaiting activation. Awe is accessible, tension is palpable but it’s unclear what protesters hope to accomplish beyond signaling a will to resist. This form of protest invites non-specific solidarity, seeking to meld nuances.

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This form of protest also sometimes relies on costume and custom mimesis without framing or critique, and doesn’t address a general aggression against absorption, abstraction, and meditated response. Protesters jeer the head of state, along with their own ceremony and its rituals, hurtling toward deeper irreverence. Historically, this was the project of the West: to destroy or institutionalize its own gnostic believers, then eliminate them from the East. It’s still so dangerous and holy when one clear voice breaks out and recites or sings, holds a note that transports. This is the work of the public mystic.

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It should be unsurprising that the protest of the citizen (or resident) whose positioning is more fragile, whose legal protections were never established or are regularly abused is pointed, energized, and often relentlessly pursues a set of objectives. For the alien citizen, the protest cry is not a recitation of rights; it’s a reminder of failed promise. Instead of using various declarations to heckle heads of state, the alien citizen receives them as proof of exemption, or as an action plan described in rousing language by authors who likely weren’t considering their pained states of suspension.

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• •

There’s an interesting Somali word used shorthand for depression: Niyadjab. Niyad means spirit but also intention, heart, and implies yearning for life. Jab is break, fragment but also defeat or loss. I sunder in a different language. My hope scatters in time.

America has finally broken my heart. The English is sufficient.

In a situational depression, I cried almost every winter day to relieve pressure, and from a vulnerability that reminded me of a child facing a bully. I dreamed as a fugitive. What else is a citizen or resident who breaks the law—in so many cases by fact of birth, of being? I ran from vehicles, shops, airports. I had no reason to run. I dreamed of internment and enslavement, and of my incredulity, my attempts to hide as landscapes broke apart.

Quantum Woman: immigrant, black, female, exiled from home and unable to confirm whether home is home.

Blackness as a form of nebulous matter, definable by a known force or material’s response to it. Is whiteness, then, necessarily material and blackness immaterial? In physics, saying Black Lives Matter isn’t obvious. It’s a philosophical offering. It’s addressing points of origin for the thinking that rules our actions, and the absolutes that limit the vastness of a life.

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Alien citizenship. How tenuous, the promise of paperwork that can be taken away. Land-locked Ohioan remembering the scent of saltwater and missing it all the time. I understand the meandering of the Mississippi River: that it’s ever returning to home and does so with something that can look like inertia. Derrida writes: Go there where you cannot go, to the impossible, that is at bottom the only way of coming or going. To be there, already. To arrive at an inevitable possibility, the stillness, the deep knowing, the “non-event” of bringing silt to surface. And love surrenders to the impossible. Is love the submission free of humiliation?

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I am searing into myself. Am I going too far? There’s no other way.

Due to their ability, or the fact that they’re mutants or space-born, superheroes are alien citizens. The margin cannot contain their forms but wears away at their minds. They mostly realize their faculties and transform under duress, in response to a powerful adversary. Perhaps we’re all becoming superheroes.

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Brooklyn, NY. January 2018.

Photo captions

1. JFK Airport: travel ban legal help desk. January 28, 2017.

2. “United.” NYC Women’s March. January 21, 2017.

3. “Plea(se) GOD HELP US.” Women’s March.

4. L: A girl sits on her father’s shoulders. Women’s March. R: As one of this summer’s near-daily actions quiets, a girl rests near Trump Tower. August 13, 2017.

5. Protesters gather before the Women’s March.

6. Women’s March.

7. Immigration Ban Rally, Washington Square Park. January 25, 2017.

8. A distressed man stands on a spotlight. Washington Square Park.

9. A man dressed as Lincoln poses with a student. August 13, 2017.

10. “Lord Will Love Us Lord Will Save Us Love Will Save Us Love Will Love Us.” Women’s March.

11. L: White Hoodie: Young lovers protest after Charlottesville. August 14, 2017. R: Citizens refuse to clear a sidewalk facing Trump Tower.

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